Reading the Faber Book of English History in Verse in East London was like trying to hold Radio 3 on the FM band.* The wavelength was under fire from all sides, and its measured strains kept giving way to the outlandish rapping and toasting of the local pirate stations. Closing the minister’s volume in dismay, I noticed an image of Nelson dying at Trafalgar on the cover and set off in search of a place where I might try again.

Mr Baker’s anthology was on the best-seller list by the summer, when I took it down to Dorset and found the place where it would really come to life. Driving up from West Lulworth, I left behind the yellow fields of EEC oil seed rape and travelled up onto the rougher, more English ground of Povington Hill. The heath still resembles the one Thomas Hardy imagined as Lear’s, but it is now part of the Royal Armoured Corps’s gunnery range: enclosed and blasted in a new sense. The road goes up past the turf-covered rings of Flower’s Barrow, and then turns off towards Worbarrow Bay. Along with the usual signs warning of unexploded shells, there’s a military checkpoint here and a notice of earlier date which forbids campers, hawkers and vendors from entering the valley below. Like Mr Baker’s England, Tyneham Valley had its great moments before history died on it in the 1940s. Its village and Elizabethan mansion, domain of the Bond family for nearly five hundred continuous years, were celebrated in magazines like Country Life, and Arthur Bryant was not the first to recognise its bay as ‘the loveliest in England’. Eton College used to send its scouts to Tyneham for their annual summer camp. The Times photographed the harvest here in August 1929, and spread the Baldwinite result – a horse-drawn harvester set off against a silver sea – over half a page. Clough Williams-Ellis stretched Tyneham’s view of Worbarrow Bay over the end-papers of his passionately-argued conservationist volume Britain and the Beast. There could scarcely have been a more evocative picture of an England that, in the Thirties, was endangered but still unspoilt.

Within a few years local papers would be renaming this romantic valley ‘The Forbidden Land’. Tyneham was evacuated on the order of Churchill’s War Cabinet in 1943. The Normandy landings were in the offing and a secluded training-ground had to be found. From this moment the story of Tyneham becomes a fable of loyal sacrifice and subsequent betrayal. Villagers received a month’s notice and the assurance that they would be able to return to their houses once the national emergency was over. They left, but only after Mrs Bond had written a note on their behalf and pinned it to the church door: ‘Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes, where many of us have lived for generations, to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.’

The Attlee Government acknowledged the existence of ‘Churchill’s pledge’, as it quickly came to be known. But the Cold War changed everything, and at a public enquiry in 1948 Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, announced that the Government had no choice but to declare the evacuation permanent. Mr Ralph Bond, who had formed and commanded the Tyneham Home Guard among his own villagers in 1940, was bought out. Those of his villagers who hadn’t died of shock were rehoused, many of them in Tyneham Close, a specially-built council estate near Wareham. Tyneham disappeared behind the wire: Elizabethan mansion, secluded 13th-century church, village and all. As the place of Churchill’s broken pledge, it became a persistent metaphor of post-war England: a patriotic nation betrayed in its own name.

The press wasted no time dubbing Tyneham ‘the village that died for D-Day’, and it soon developed into a national cult. Lord Hinchingbrooke stood up at the 1947 Annual Dinner of the Society of Dorset Men to protest that South Dorset was being turned, ‘by an insidious process’, into a military encampment. ‘What is the use,’ he asked, ‘of a great standing army and fleets of aircraft if the source and inspiration of patriotism is lacking through the spoliation of our countryside?’ His protest would be amplified by many commentators in the decades to come. Sealed up behind the wire, Tyneham didn’t just disappear. It was also reborn as an ideal English village of the mind: like Stanley Spencer’s Cookham or Edward Ardizzone’s Little Snoreing, but also, in less cosy inflections, like a Lidice of the post-war settlement.

Lilian Bond helped to give the flourishing idea of Tyneham some authentic historical definition. She had grown up in Tyneham House before the Great War, and knew that ‘remembrance is as vital to nations as to men.’ Her memoirs of Tyneham were published in 1956, and introduced with a quotation from Hilaire Belloc: ‘The corner of a corner of England is infinite and cannot be exhausted.’ Others who had lived there contributed to the growing picture. Phoebe Rees told the Observer of a childhood spent in the rectory (reported to have been burned down by ‘camping hippies’ in the Sixties). The climate had been so benign that daffodils flowered in January and a loquat tree bore fruit in the rectory garden.

By the Sixties, Tyneham’s much lamented ruin had become confused with an idea of salvation. As a perfect English village, Tyneham may have been destroyed, but at least it had been spared the many degradations of the post-war period. Nobody had widened the roads, fluoridated the water or filled the place with holiday bungalows. There had been no consumerism or television to foster aberrant desires, no immigration to pollute the village’s ancestral stock, no metrication to confound the valley’s innate sense of measure, no welfare state to homogenise its community and weaken the character of its villagers. No liberal progressives had ever come to tamper with the school curriculum, modernise the liturgy or translate the Bibles of Tyneham into ‘Good News for Modern Man’.

By May 1968, the cult had taken a new turn. The Conservative press turned from events in Paris for long enough to notice a ‘militant resistance movement’ that had sprung up in South Dorset. A volatile alliance of environmentalist campaigners, former villagers and landowners, writers and lovers of the countryside, had come together to boot the Army out of Tyneham. The ‘Tyneham Action Group’ formed, quickly followed by the more fiery ‘1943 Committee’. The campaigners manipulated the sentimental imagery of Tyneham for all it was worth. Elderly ladies were photographed going through the barbed wire to visit their former homes. The village post-office was illegally ‘re-opened’ for a day so that postcards could be sent from England’s most famous ghost village. Even Lord Salisbury, who had been Tyneham’s Tory MP before the war, was moved to break his vow never to appear on television. He went in front of the cameras to tell the nation how things used to be: ‘Nothing could have been more charming, more peaceful or more remote than it was at that time: a little folded valley between the downs and the sea with a grey Elizabethan manor house and a church and a village to match.’

In the early Seventies the battle seemed won. Lord Nugent’s Defence Lands Committee recommended that the tank range should be shifted from Dorset. Local support for the Army was quickly stirred up and, with the Government wavering, the Tyneham campaigners played their last card. Lord Fenner Brockway took John Gould, a road-sweeper who was already among Tyneham’s most symbolised villagers, to 10 Downing Street. A life-long member of the Labour Party, Gould presented Harold Wilson with a wreath made of ivy picked from the ruins of the cottage in which he had been born. He also gave him a letter, reminding him of Churchill’s pledge and pleading the Englishman’s right to go home. If Tyneham was not to be released, then he at least should be allowed, when his time finally came, to put his bones to rest in Tyneham Churchyard where so many of his old friends, his grandparents and his Uncle Tom already lay in shell-shocked repose. But Wilson followed the advice of his civil servants and the Army kept its range. Thus did the labour Party lose its solitary Tyneham supporter. John Gould joined the Liberal Party in disgust, and the campaign dwindled away.

The village is now a quaint mixture of ruin and theme park. It has the look of the Manpower Services Commission’s Community Programme about it. The overgrown village pond has been excavated and re-established as an environmentalist eco-system. The cottages of Post Office Row have been reduced to manageable ruins and sign-posted with their old family names. The old telephone box, featured in countless newspaper pictures, has been restored and painted up so that it glows like a bad fake.

Further up the path stands a one-roomed schoolhouse. Built by the Bonds in 1856, Tyneham National School was closed by the Board of Education as numbers fell away in 1932. The log-book tells of successive schoolmistresses and their struggle to maintain national standards in a valley where nature itself seems to have conspired against regular attendance. Figures fall because of illness – smallpox, diptheria, ‘brain fever’. Perhaps the mackerel are in the bay, or the harvest is being brought in. In April 1874 the schoolmistress reported that even the grass was against her: it was long and very wet, and it kept the little ones from coming to school.

The school was tightly managed by the Bonds and their rector. Visiting inspectors from the Education Department were worried about sanitation arrangements. They wanted to see the walls cleaned and hung with maps. They found arithmetic and spelling weak, and regretted the harshness disfiguring the children’s note-singing. All in all, however, they recognised Tyneham’s as ‘a good village school’, particularly strong in its religious education. The log-book hints at a national curriculum too. The various standards studied set poems: in 1890 these were noted as including Wordsworth’s ‘Foresight’, Miss Yonge’s ‘The Mother’s Book’, Longfellow’s ‘Discovery of the North Cape’ and Cowper’s ‘On the Receipt of his Mother’s Picture’. ‘The Deserted Village’ was added for the higher standards in 1892. Object lessons included plum pudding, Saint George and the Dragon, posting a letter and the Union Jack.

The school calendar was shaped by its special occasions: not just the annual tea provided by the Bonds up at Tyneham House, but the duly observed days of church, nation and state. On Empire Day the school was addressed by a visiting speaker, who ‘tried to impress on the minds of the children the responsibility that rested on each true Englishman to uphold the honour of England in whatever country they were’. The school then saluted the flag and sang suitable songs. A holiday was declared for the afternoon. That was in 1906.

The ruined schoolhouse has been re-roofed in the last few years and opened as a museum. The state’s presence in this valley has hardened since the days of the School Inspectors, or the Post Office engineers who came to install the telephone-box and were cursed by a rector who wanted none of their improvements, and the school’s educational message has changed accordingly. The exhibition is a somewhat surreal tribute to the tank and its contribution to this evacuated stretch of Dorset’s ‘Heritage Coast’. It repeats the myth of Tyneham, stripping it of social content and turning it into a strictly ecological saga. The visitor is assured that the Royal Armoured Corps has saved Tyneham Valley from the fate that has overtaken so much of Dorset’s traditional landscape. There has been no commercial development, no deep ploughing to destroy the Medieval field systems, no pesticides to silence the valley’s spring. The network of hedgerows has been ‘left virtually intact’: indeed, the exhibition celebrates Tyneham as the place where Wordsworth’s line about ‘little lines of sportive wood run wild’ still comes true. Tyneham Valley is now ‘one of the best places in the County to hear the nightingale’. Impact craters may be ‘visually unattractive’, but they make ‘perfect sites for some of the more interesting pioneer communities of chalk plants’. An image showing the Army blasting away in the gorse is labelled ‘Co-operation – the Army creating small pools for dragonflies in the wet heathland area’.

The exhibition tries hard to bring the story to a happy conclusion under the present status quo. Tyneham is part of the heritage now: purged of living society, its image of history is fused with the national interest of the hard state. The earlier social arguments are now confined to comments in the visitors’ book. ‘Such devastation to a once beautiful area!’ wrote ‘One who was stationed here in 1943’. Somebody wondered: ‘Does Tyneham point the way to resolving the Inner City Problem?’ A child was furious: ‘How would you like it if someone came along and blew your house up! Traitors!’ Again: ‘A small pocket of humaneness in a sterile desert of uncanny beauty, like a viper or a scorpion. Deathly. I cry for thee Tyneham.’ Again: ‘Interesting to think that this village was here when England was last invaded – nearly nine hundred years have elapsed and yet we still feel it necessary to practise warfare and put the so-called “necessity of defence” before the ancient and established natural rights of people to live where their families have lived for generations.’

I sat down in the overgrown garden of Tyneham rectory to consider Mr Baker’s anthology again. I found myself looking at another collection of purposefully reinstated ruins. Eager to see how Mr Baker rounded off his story of England, I turned to the last page and found a fragment of ‘Little Gidding’ serving as his version of Churchill’s pledge. It’s all very well to conclude that history is a pattern of ‘timeless moments’, but what does Mr Baker make of the years since 1942 when T.S. Eliot stood in the failing winter light of his ‘secluded chapel’ and knew so surely that ‘History is now and England’?

Mr Baker shows a marked tendency to opt out. He declares the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II his formal end-point, but has trouble getting through 1945. A.P. Herbert’s ‘Mr Churchill’ is there to remind us that ‘Our Finest Hour revealed our Finest Man.’ But after that the story dies away in minor ditties by Sagittarius, Noel Coward and William Scammell. Regretting the ‘remarkable shortage’ of ‘good, straight’ verse written about ‘public events in England over the past thirty years’, our anthologist adopts a policy of charitable evacuation. His collection seems to suggest that if the best traditions of English verse survive at all in the post-war years, they do so only in the tributes that exceptional modern poets have managed to pay to an increasingly forsaken national past. Mr Baker rewards these chosen bards by lifting them out of the post-war swamp, offering them an assisted place in more lustrous parts of our island story. So Geoffrey Hill comes to stand next to Shakespeare in the England of Plantagenet Kings. C.H. Sisson finds himself in the same company in the bracing reign of Henry VIII. Philip Larkin joins Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen for the final flowering of the Great War.

Tom Paulin has denounced Mr Baker’s attempt to establish a single English tradition as the work of a ‘blood and soil’ nationalist. Jonathan Clark has likened his anthology to the ‘emotional core’ of the core curriculum. But in that overgrown rectory garden the book seemed elegiac and, despite Mr Baker’s recent use of it in a Moscow school, most unlike a modern textbook. Indeed, his anthology – a garland of flowers gathered ‘in the space between politics and family life’ – reminded me more of the junkshop than the classroom. It is like those patriotic but now discarded anthologies which were published to encourage the troops during the two world wars, and which set their profile of the nation’s heritage off against the quickening dangers of the time.

As Baker told the Mail on Sunday, his book is ‘laid out Reign by Reign, with Events and Dates, like history books used to be when I was a boy’. Guaranteed to trigger prep-school memories of date cards and historical romances like A.E.W. Mason’s Fire over England – set at Worbarrow Bay – his anthology aims to recover true English tradition from the many confusions that have threatened it in the post-war years. Proper chronology replaces all that liberal nonsense about ‘empathy’ in the learning of history. Kings and Queens are reinstated over the jumped-up servants and coalminers whose partial views, scribbled in the visitors’ book, have been mistaken for the real story by social historians. English poetry is cleansed of the obfuscation that has gone on under so many names – be it Black Mountain, Deconstruction or Zephaniah – and given back to the patriotic common reader. As for our increasingly strident women poets, Mr Baker has included very few of them in his history of ‘public events’, happily consigning the rest to the obscurity of their own ‘private emotions’.

Kingsley Amis saw signs of literary philistinism in Mr Baker’s willingness to cut so many full poems down to snippets. But from Tyneham, these apparently ruinous cuts look valiant. They become symbolic of the price that must be paid if neglected traditions are to be reinstated. Like the Parliamentary guillotine that punctuated the passage of the Education Reform Act, they keep the wilderness at bay. Mr Baker’s recovery of English verse doesn’t augur well for the Committee for University English either. The cuts that Baker has inflicted on the nation’s verse are easily harmonised with what the Committee has recently reported of the universities. By identifying Englishness with the cultural instincts and distant school memories of people like himself, he has certainly reduced it to fragments. But at least he has ensured that it can never be usurped. Sir Keith Joseph is now known as Lord Joseph of Portsoken. If Margaret Thatcher really does go green and hold on for another ten years, Kenneth Baker may yet receive due recognition as Lord Baker of Tyneham.

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