Sunday, 27 February 2011

Edgelands and left-wing fogeyism

During my customary, leisurely read of the New Statesman on Saturday, two particularly interesting book reviews struck me. One might also highlight Rachel Cooke's political reading of South Riding but I am holding off from commenting on that until I have read more of the novel (currently 40 pages in) and watched the 1970s and 2011 TV-adaptations.

Firstly, Ken Worpole's review of Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts' Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness, two poets' enquiry of our 'bastard countryside': 'Like their hero John Clare, they have found their poems in the fields'. Worpole begins by mentioning independent-minded Marxist Raymond Williams' The Country and the City (1973), which explained that stark distinctions and demarcations between country and city were no longer valid. He then mentions a similarly-minded 'ecological polemic', Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside and also the anarchist Colin Ward and sociologist Dennis Hardy's writings about life "on the margins", in areas not simply city or country or suburb: 'where they found plotlands, allotments, caravan sites, camping grounds, small-holdings and children's hiding places, as well as outposts of artisan industry.'

As well as books I plan to read like Roger Deakin's Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain (1999) and Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (2007) and Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places (2007), one is brought to mind of two television programmes. Firstly, Jonathan Meades' 'Severn Heaven', which focused on the improvised dwellings and plotlands along the river Severn near Bewdley - which grew up in response to the Great Depression.

Second is Alan Plater's rather neglected BBC1 Afternoon Play, The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two Sheds (2006), which saw the veteran playwright attempting to bring together disparate dissenters (old socialist trade-unionist, a 1960s hippie, disillusioned but chipper career women &c.) against neo-liberalism. They are brought together by their senseof shared community around their allotments, situated just outside the city where Jodie Whittaker's student studies and works part-time in a burger bar.

She comes into contact with this community as a means of unfinished business: her beloved grandfather kept a shed there, and she re-encounters his ghost (a wonderfully warm James Bolam) whenever she re-enters it. He instills in her a non-conformist love not just of stories and dreaming, but of people and places - the allotment and its varied 'eccentrics'. While the play has its significant flaws and moments of ingrained, 2000s-era BBC blandness - inappropriate, bet-hedging choice to have Mercury Rev playing at the end where Plater clearly would have relished some vintage jazz - it is a distinctive writerly piece that takes its time with ideas, characters and ambience. Watched today, it seems a poignant, stranded refugee of the Play for Today ethos amid a largely barren era of British television drama seeming to be hypnotised by Hollywood.

Worpole's review makes decidedly relevant mention of Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) and Paul Kingsnorth's Real England: A Battle against the Bland (2008). It is interesting to compare Kingsnorth's intensely felt localism and (Deep, if one considers the whole Dark Mountain project) Ecologism with Hatherley's feeling for European socialist futurism. It may seem difficult to bridge the divide between socialist urbanism and anti-growth small-is-beautiful ecology, but both writers share a concern with urban localism disappearing: they variously document Sheffield and London working-class markets under threat. Perhaps Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music (2010) has a place in this, mentioned approvingly in The Wire's end-of-2010 highlights by another excellent Zero Books author, Nina Power.
Some Green writers, such as Ernest Callenbach, are excellent on encouraging an ecological greening of city life, but also in stressing human interactions, neighbourhood diversity and Enlightenment values. The promotion of open public spaces (and parks), education and public transport can surely unite socialists and ecologists. Callenbach, author of an interesting-sounding ecological utopian novel, Ecotopia (1975), is no Luddite, but promotes a selectivity about technology. He actively encourages city apartment block living as ecologically and socially preferable to the sort of suburban or rustic retreats presumably beloved of many romantic British environmentalists - who tend to share the architectural outlook of Pevsner or Betjeman. I think there has to be a middle-ground on this - an encouragement of enlightened city values first and foremost and a defence of modernist architecture up to a point. It would be folly to say that Newcastle Upon Tyne would be a better city if its Georgian heart had been entirely demolished as per T. Dan Smith's masterplan - too many factors mitigated against this: the innate small-c conservatism of many working-class people, the gradual consumerisation of society during the 1945-79 period of social democracy in Britain. 

There has to be unity against capitalist materialism and by definition this has to include over-consumption, which lead to the sort of bland environment documented in Chris Petit's rather haunting recent TV documentary/essay, Content (More4, 2010) - intriguing reflections on the influence of technology and neo-liberalism dominance over the marginal spaces explored also by Patrick Keiller as well as Meades.

The second book review that interested me was Geoffrey Wheatcroft on David McKie's Bright Particular Stars: a Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics, not so much for the comments on the book itself - fascinating and enjoyable though that sounds - but more for Wheatcroft's assessment of McKie himself. This long-time Guardian writer has published extensively on British politics and more recently on the eccentric and locally distinctive. Wheatcroft places him as perhaps the last of a breed of provincial, non-metropolitan left-wing writers and journalists:

'As his discerning fan club knows, McKie himself is, if not eccentric, salty, sesquipedal and offbeat,but also alittle poignant, as befits one of the last of an endangered species or tendency. It might be called the fogeyism of the left - "Radicals for cricket, railways and real ale" - which once had a billet at the Guardian, whose deputy editor McKie was, and where he later wrote the Elsewhere and Smallweed columns.

There was a time when that paper, too, or rather the Manchester Guardian as was, embodied certain virtues - dissenting, unfashionable, provincial - which are today not so much discounted or despised, as quite vanished. Much more significant than the politics of our media now is their tone: modish, sneering, intensely metropolitan. It is a world that would have disconcerted not only McKie's far-flung villains, but also his heroes.'

One could mention Alan Garner, Alex Glasgow, Jake Thackray, Hunter Davies, Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter and - of course - Alan Plater as others not writing from an exclusive, metropolitan mindset. Who do not automatically sneer at most life outside the capital or assume the worst of people; who embody a kind of humane socialism alien to the patronising, would-be left-liberals, the lifestylers of today. Of course, there are exceptions among those born after 1940; those not entirely giving themselves over to the new individualism: Paul McCartney and Michael Palin to an extent; Roy Harper, Robert Wyatt and Kevins Coyne and Ayers for sure. There were of course English libertarians to whom neo-liberalism was absolute anathema, but who had to play the game.

The 1930s born generation were the last to have personal memories of the Great Depression or WW2. I have written previously about Robert Westall, born just a few months earlier in 1929, though no one embodies the particular generation's strain of socialism as well as Alan Plater. Jazz over rock 'n' roll. Social liberalism within the context of strong social institutions and bonds; an interest in people and life rather than the iconography of self-destruction that is the hallmark of the rock 'n' roll cult.

'All I would say is that those whom with some deliberateness I called enemy artists — I don’t just see
them as different, I see them as enemy — endlessly harp on the failure of relationships, the dislocation of communities, the defeat of noble efforts, the end of idealism. This really is the only thing with which they can defend this social order: not that it’s good, but that it’s inevitable.

People aren’t good enough to live in better ways — this is the heartland of their system. They don’t any longer try and say it’s better. They just say, ‘We understand people, we know they’re out for themselves, we know that if they try something good it fails.’ And because of that there is what I called a bourgeois dissident form of art which shows all this with great power . . .

Everyone who has lived in this actual world already has enough doubts, has enough knowledge of weakness
and of how often things fail. It may be some kind of therapy to see it endlessly replayed, but the moment when
people feel the break from the possibility that at least something can move, some-thing can be got right,
something can be felt . . . I think that at the moment, that kind of celebration of possibility is the most profound

(Raymond Williams, quoted in: BRITTON, Andrew, ed., 1991, Talking Films: The Best of
Guardian Film Lectures
, London: Fourth Estate. p.127-9)

'Will Trotter, who runs the drama outfit there, approached me with a proposition. Essentially, it went like this:

"Would you like to write an Afternoon Play?"

"Tell me more."

"This is the fourth series. We get a very good audience share, which is why they're letting us do some more. But there's a down side."

"Tell me more."

"Because it's an afternoon slot, you've got to shoot an hour-long play in eight days with two cameras. And everyone's paid less - but it goes up again if you get a peak-time repeat, and that's beginning to happen."

"Tell me more."

"Again, because it's an afternoon slot, there's no explicit sex, no drugs, and nobody's allowed to say 'shit' or 'fuck'."

"You've just described Jack Rosenthal's career. And mine, too. If we can ban rock'n'roll as well, you're on."

(Alan Plater, 'The Renaissance of the Standalone Drama', The Independent, 17 January 2006,

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