It is in poor old times like these that wordsmiths turn their minds to the collective state of the nation. We are driven to ask ourselves who we are, and who is ‘them’, and who is ‘us’. Who is Britain? Are you? Am I? While the Right proclaims a new nationalist project – to make Britain great once again – and in so doing invokes a notion of ‘we’ who share the same stake in some imagined national redemption, the Right’s critics are driven to the backyard of the nation where we will find, not the national ‘we’, but a miscellany of difference, where speech, circumstance, colour, sex and class suggest the experiences of exclusion, of otherness.
The political travelogue has a long tradition in British literature, and at its best represents a quest to reinstate the voices which are suppressed in the rhetoric of reactionary nationalism, the subjects against whom the nationalist project is mobilised. It is a literature of conscientious objection, of dissent. It derives from the feeling that the nation is unknown or unrecognisable to itself. Its project is to reveal a divided nation at the very moment of the dissidents’ defeat. At its best, though, it is not just a genre mesmerised by the spectre of the victim, but a record of the toil and ingenuity of survivors at earlier moments of political transition. That is why the photographs of Bert Hardy, the artist of Britain in war and uneasy peace, will endure long after some of his grittier successors are forgotten. He gives his subjects back their humanity. He shares with us more than their suffering – he reveals their self-respect.
It is a measure of Britain’s crisis that the political travelogue survives as a genre despite the high technology and mobility of our ubiquitous media. Now as ever, wordsmiths take to the hinterland to find ‘the people’ – not least because, now as ever, ‘the people’ have neither freedom of movement nor freedom of speech. For if freedom of speech means anything it must mean the right to be heard, to matter. That leaves those with the opportunity to be heard and the freedom to travel with a responsibility to decide: who are they speaking with and for? A third of Britain is poor, and yet the voice of the poor is not assembled, organised, nor is it heard. It doesn’t matter. Two-thirds of Britain thinks of itself as working-class, and whether or not that thought fits either Marxist or sociological definitions of the working class, the self-denomination describes a wish. It’s a wish to belong to the ‘popular’ class. And yet who and what the working class is vexes the mind of the intelligentsia no less than it ever did.
Not surprisingly, the political travelogue is as much preoccupied with the nature of nationhood as with the meaning of class. For class remains the code through which we decipher the meaning of power and powerlessness. Class no longer exhausts the categories of power – gender and race define the castes of class power: nonetheless, the working class attracts the political traveller precisely because it remains both the majority and yet a mystery. It is powerful, and yet in Britain today it is powerless. This is the political problem with Britain. And this is the dialectic in which the radical traveller-writer must intervene. It is a particular dialectic for socialists and revolutionaries, because when the working class is on the run, socialism is usually out of sight – hidden in the nooks and crannies of civil society.
Strange, then, that some of the participants in the renaissance of political travel-writing are so politically barren, so out of touch with the efforts of socialist renovation. There’s the nostalgic tendency, sentimental in its rage about the lost innocence of a proletariat corrupted by holidays, page-three pin-ups, vinyl sofas and tin cans. It’s as if a working class that can’t mend its own shoes or bake its own bread can’t make the revolution either. And so they see the working class, not as a majority without power, but as helpless and hopeless. Then there’s the misanthropic tendency: these are the ex-socialist snobs who likewise infantilise the working class, but where the nostalgics are simply sentimental, the snobs are bitter, angry middle-aged men hardly able to contain their contempt both for ‘the people’ and for socialism itself. We find both tendencies in the architect of the tradition, George Orwell: but at least he had the decency to own up, at least he ‘came out’ as a sentimental and cynical snob.
This year we have more contributions to the cartography of class – Beryl Bainbridge’s benign Forever England follows up her television series. Alan Sillitoe has written a coffee-table book, Nottinghamshire, with photographs by David Sillitoe. And David Selbourne has put his New Society pieces together in Left Behind: Journeys into British Politics. Forever England is like a little chat among compatriots in the North and South, mingling their common-sense biographies with Bainbridge’s autobiography. There’s an equality in her book: she no more nor less than her subjects is given to eccentricity, to clipped tales which reveal more than they seem to, all of them evocative of everything that’s oddly English. It’s a modest book. It doesn’t pretend to engage with the problems of power, or economics, or politics. And it’s for ever forgiving. You might not share her pessimism or her nostalgia, but as an anthology of ‘common-sense’ it makes strangers seem familiar. And that’s what Beryl Bainbridge is good at.
The nostalgic tendency is nourished by the mythologies wrapped around political precedent: the Thirties appear as the mirror of the crisis of the Eighties. It is an attractive comparison, but it doesn’t work. The ‘distressed areas’ are not only those on the periphery of central and southern England: they are to be found in the heart of the metropolitan South, too. State employment sustains workers in the devastated manufacturing heartlands. Manufacturing employs only a quarter of the workforce. ‘Heads of households’ formerly employed in the asset-stripped factories may be on the dole while their wives may be the only people in the family with a job – they are now the bread-winners. Nearly a million jobs may yet disappear by the turn of the century, and an estimated 900,000 new jobs will be created by 1991. They’ll mainly be for part-timers, and that means for women. By the end of the century many places in the British Isles will probably have more women in employment than men.
Two terms of Thatcherism have finally seen Britain’s biggest trade unions competing for the very candidates who have been spurned for over a century – the part-time working women. The Eighties have confronted the trade-union movement not only with the limits of strategies based on employment and economic growth but with the limits of gender privilege and political priorities built upon the interests of the male breadwinner.
Despite the existence of the welfare state, a labyrinth of welfare gladiators has emerged across the country, animating even the decorum of the Citizens Advice Bureaux. When they’re not trying to encourage the ‘discretion’ of the social security system to work for their wageless clients, they’re trying to mitigate the debt crisis which encircles the poor. You enjoy credit, they suffer a vortex of debt. Imagine what it means, not only to have no money in the bank, but not to belong to a bank because you never have money to put in it. Imagine how it is if the only post you get is a fortnightly giro, or quarterly bills that you can’t pay. Imagine how it is when you don’t open the door unless the visitor shouts their name. All the other callers want something you haven’t got – money. Well, some of that is pretty much how it is behind a few million of Britain’s front doors.
David Selbourne’s alienation from the drama of poverty is evident only in the occassional slap for the ‘polytechnic socialists’ who worry about it. He pops into some of the emblematic sites of struggle – Bradford and Sheffield, for example – and shows us that everyone is wrong. Socialists, he says, have suppressed the ambiguous lessons of working-class history, and this is the key to the failure of socialism. What ‘really goes on’ at the grass roots just doesn’t match ‘the figments of the “left” ideological imagination’. Marxists in his scenario are scaredy-cats, intellectual dependents mesmerised by old words and old faiths. As we read on, we get the distinct impression that he dislikes not only the Marxists but the working class too. To his contemporaries he simply says j’accuse, for they have failed. Is he counting himself in? Is he not also a participant in the failure? Of course not. All are damned save himself, for Selbourne sets himself apart, a freeloading free-thinker. Although he is confidently political where Bainbridge is modestly silent, the terrain they share is a fascination with the speaking of ‘common sense’. Bainbridge is at home with it; in a way it is the language she speaks. Selbourne left it behind him long ago, but it is deployed throughout his book to mark out the difference between himself and his subjects. They think in the vernacular and he thinks in theory. Their speech sets them apart and is subordinate to the author’s greater wisdom. He joins the conversation only as an interrogator whose questions always seem to be accusations. What is really unsatisfactory about Selbourne’s ‘journey’ is not that he touches raw nerves and ‘inconvenient’ truths – much of the British Left is too self-critical to be bothered about such things these days – but that the book which records it is so slight, so superficial.
Common sense expresses both consent and dissent, sometimes simultaneously, and in Britain today can be found endorsing, apparently at the same time, utterly contradictory political objectives. The crisis of British politics is that there is no appropriate form of political organisation which can intervene in all that confusion, to clarify relevant and realisable socialist objectives. The distance between dissenting common sense and radical politics is the Left’s crisis.
That’s the space which Selbourne might have claimed; that’s where he might have been useful. But he missed it. It’s a vacant lot in Forever England too, but then that’s not Bainbridge’s territory. Selbourne’s journey stands in the shadow of Orwellian misanthropy. But in contrast with Orwell’s journeys, where his discovery of the people was also a voyage of self-discovery, the author is out there in front – fully-formed. Take his polemics in Sheffield, where his breathless and slightly mocking interview with David Blunkett seems to be constantly interrupted by his own interjections, not in his own voice, but in that of a local Tory. Selbourne’s scepticism about the socialist republic of south Yorkshire is palpable, but hardly in the form of his own argument against the limits of municipal socialism: this argument he never develops. Blunkett is both a defender and a critic of the municipal monolith, a loyal but also a critical adherent of Labourism, a modernist exponent of the Labour movement’s traditions. And yet the subtleties of Blunkett’s strategic imagination, as well as its limits, are reduced to the quips of an educated demagogue. We don’t learn from Selbourne what Blunkett represents in British socialism, what he and his city think they are doing. Nor do we learn how Ray Honeyford’s chauvinisms, which would once have described a ubiquitous consciousness among white professionals, became beseiged anachronisms in Bradford. It’s a city whose mystery Selbourne misses because he doesn’t see what Hanif Kureishi went looking for, according to a piece of his in Granta: ‘Bradford seemed to be a microcosm of a larger British society that was struggling to find a sense of itself even as it was undergoing radical change.’
Writers aren’t just observers: they’re participants, they, too, are subjects of radical change. Left Behind concludes with nine paragraphs, updating the news on the natives who populate his essays. But there’s a paragraph missing – the one he should have written on himself. He launches his essays with a sceptical introduction which defines the tone of everything that is to come. But he doesn’t tell us where he’s ended up. Left behind, I think.
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