Getting on

Paul Addison

  • On Living in an Old Country by Patrick Wright
    Verso, 262 pp, £5.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 86091 833 5
  • Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Vol. II: Assaults by Maurice Cowling
    Cambridge, 375 pp, £30.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 521 25959 2

Here are two books about the relationship of the English to their past. According to Patrick Wright, England is a reactionary society burdened by a false mystique of national identity. To dissolve that mystique must be one of the first priorities of democratic socialists in establishing an alternative society with a renewed faith in its capacity for progress. At the opposite pole of politics, Maurice Cowling abhors the secular modernity of contemporary England and the apostasy of its people from the Anglican faith of Charles I and Archbishop Laud. Given the chance, he would restore in modern dress the divine right of kings and the doctrinal authority of a state church preaching supernatural Christianity.

Wright and Cowling have much in common in their alienation from society as it stands, and their conviction that the forces opposed to them are almost overwhelming. Among these forces is history itself: both the past as academics interpret it, and the past in popular consciousness. If England is in the wrong hands, this is partly because its history has been taken over by the wrong people and falsified. Granted the undoubted truth that history is indeed subjective, this is very plausible as far as it goes. But though we cannot reconstruct it with certainty, England has a real past and everyone living in England today is in a sense its prisoner. It might well be that the most formidable obstacle in the path of Wright and Cowling is not, as they would like to believe, a false consciousness of the past, but the past as it actually was.

When Patrick Wright left England for Canada in 1974, he said goodbye to a country where campus radicalism was still flourishing, and Tony Benn was preparing to hoist the red flag over the ruins of capitalism. When he returned, in 1979, Mrs Thatcher was in power and social reaction in the air. As he looked around he realised, for the first time, that he was living in an old country. ‘I felt,’ he writes, ‘as though I had stumbled inadvertently into some sort of anthropological museum.’

What most fascinated and disturbed Wright was the mounting passion of the English for conservation. The material remains of the past, which had previously been of interest mainly to scholars, were fast becoming the objects of a new popular cult. This was partly due to the influence of television, where historical drama presented mouth-watering images of an aristocratic or upper-middle-class past. But although Wright kept an eye on such things, his curiosity ranged far beyond the media. Having set off on a quest into the origins of the conservationist mentality, he traced it to a variety of sources both high and low, famous and obscure. He inquired into the history of the National Trust and the National Heritage Memorial Fund. He researched the history of the Shell oil company’s remarkable campaign, begun in the Twenties, to popularise the countryside. He cast a beady eye around the streets of Stoke Newington, where he was living at the time, and observed the activities of the incoming middle class as they ‘restored’ Victorian terraces and expropriated the working class who used to live in them. He recognised and responded to the plight of old people who felt stranded in the modern world and threatened even in their own homes. He listened attentively to the views of Mary Alice Salvidge, an old lady who moved her house piece by piece from one county to another rather than see it demolished to make way for a road.

A collection of essays on these and similar topics makes for an interesting pot-pourri. Intermittently Wright displays many of the qualities of a first-class journalist. He has an eye for the exact detail that tells all, and his graphic tour of the streets of Stoke Newington, where the clapped-out old Jag cohabits with the expensively renovated Morris Minor, and a bit of Daniel Defoe’s back-garden wall is still to be seen next to the refuse depot, exhibits a marvellous sense of place. But his larger ambition, a favourite project of New Left sociology, is highly theoretical: to ground political analysis in popular culture, and popular culture in the hegemony of dominant classes. Wright’s curious collection of data is the flotsam and jetsam on an ocean of abstract discussion.

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