Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England, by Jason Cowley, Picador, 280 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1529017786
Touring England at the height of the Great Depression in 1933 to gather material for his book English Journey, JB Priestley was regularly impressed by novelty. The wide road out of London lined with modern factories that looked like “decorative little buildings” rather than the sooty chimneys he was used to growing up in Yorkshire: “Being new, it did not look English.” The organised state of coach travel “with its inspectors and inquiry offices and waiting rooms”. In the Cotswolds – “the most English of all our countrysides” ‑ he was intrigued to meet a farmer who found out about the weather from the wireless. Offering Priestley a whisky and choosing gin for himself, the farmer reminisced about old local traditions such as a shin-kicking contest. “The competitors, who must have been hardy fellows, placed their hands on each other’s shoulders and then, at a signal from the referee, hacked away at each other’s shins.” This was England in its quaint, eccentric guise, or one of three Englands that Priestley discovered as he journeyed around the country: an “Old England” celebrated in guide books for American tourists. In the Midlands and the North, the second England created by the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century was nowhere near as enchanting with its “cynically devastated countryside, sooty dismal little towns, and still sootier grim fortress-like cities”. And then, as he returned to London, he conjured out of the enveloping fog a third England of “arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations … giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars … wireless, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools”. Curiously, this landscape belonged to the times, not the territory that was England. He concluded that “America was its real birthplace” and Woolworths its symbol.
Nearly half a century later, at another moment of economic collapse, Ian Jack took to the road to assess the impact of the Thatcher revolution and, in winter of 1982, pitched up in the Cotswold town of Chipping Campden which struck him as an American film set designer’s idea of what England should look like. The Cotswolds, Jack reflected “seem to have represented a dream of the essential England for most of the century”. He visited Priestley, now eighty-eight and living out his old age in the rural idyll he had discovered in 1933. Although a somewhat reluctant interviewee on the subject of the current state of the nation, the author of English Journey repeated conceits that he shared with George Orwell: that his compatriots were a kind people who had not changed in any fundamental way. He still considered himself a patriot even though he thought too much fuss had been made of the Falklands. A few months earlier, Jack had visited Wigan to inspect the town mercilessly portrayed by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, which appeared a few years after Priestley’s book. Afflicted by chronic unemployment just as in the 1930s, the town presented a vista of waste land surrounded by ring roads. Jack puzzled as to why “a part of England close to breakdown” was not turning to violence, “was not more distressed by its own condition”.
England always has a condition demanding diagnosis. A recurrent feature of the genre is the clash between the brutal divisions of economic life revealed on the writer’s travels and the wistful desire for some homely heartland essence. While Jack and Priestley were impelled to report on what looked like an impending social collapse, Jason Cowley, the editor of the New Statesman, was impelled by the shock of Brexit and the pandemic to ask what was happening with England. The striking parallel with his predecessors is how this inquiry is framed by the division between London – which Cowley largely avoids – and the territory he calls “peripheral England”. His starting point is the regular evening rounds of applause for the NHS during the early days of lockdown. He found this “moment of magical mutuality” curiously affecting, even though he realises it can only be transient, like a summer of English anticipation at the World Cup. It offered a way back to an elusive sense of community and harmony shattered by the divisions of Brexit. More urgently, it was, he felt, a gift, a second chance to examine what had gone wrong in the United Kingdom not only for him as a writer but for the entire nation: failure to seize this opportunity for “national renewal” might conclude with the disintegration of the Union. But instead of touring the entire island – let alone crossing to Northern Ireland – he chose to explore questions about the England where he had been born and raised in the 1960s and ’70s. “Who are we now? Why do so many people believe their Englishness has been suppressed or ignored? What accounts for the stubborn notion that Englishness and loss are inextricable?” It is not entirely clear how a book about England and its frustrated sense of nationality might offer a solution for keeping the United Kingdom together.
Cowley’s central method is to examine a series of news stories from the last twenty years which might yield insight into the condition of England. He goes to see Mohammed Mahmoud, the Finsbury Park imam who in 2017 protected a white man who had driven his van into a group of Muslims outside his mosque from a vengeful mob. And he interviews Patrick Hutchinson, a black man who in the summer of 2020 was photographed carrying an injured far-right white protester to safety over his shoulder at a Black Lives Matter rally in London. A drawback of his approach is that these people, who have been heavily featured in the news, are already familiar and their stories, however well told, reinforce the impressions they already made. The interviews are interwoven with a slice of evocative memoir about Cowley’s home town of Harlow, one of the vaunted New Towns that grew up around London in the optimistic years after the end of the Second World War. And some chapters are essayistic, reflecting on the convulsions of the Scottish independence referendum and the Brexit vote.
Cowley rejects explanations attributing the Brexit vote to thwarted English nationalism or sentimental longing for the lost glories of empire. Instead, he argues that Brexit emerged from a profound sense of neglected grievance over a rising sense of powerlessness in the face of cultural, technological and economic change. To those outside London, it offered the hope that “a common ethical life” could be restored in a world fractured by forces which seemed overwhelming. Ignored by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who were busy rebranding the Union as “Cool Britannia” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people living outside the big cities felt excluded. Cowley quotes Darcus Howe writing about the race riots in Oldham in 2001, blaming the “Labour mafia” which ran the city. “The quality of the housing they built is a disgrace … Most white workers in Oldham have supported the Labour Party for generations. New Labour has abandoned them while it parades its goods before Middle England.” Both New Labour and David Cameron underestimated the depth of this resentment, expressed by increasing identification with the St George’s flag, which Nigel Farage successfully channelled into the campaign to leave the EU.
Cowley describes migration as a revolutionary force but despite the role it played in the Brexit vote it was only one of several issues that fostered this sense of abandonment. He travels to Rochdale to meet Gillian Duffy, the woman condemned by Gordon Brown as a bigot in an unguarded comment picked up by a microphone in his car after their encounter during the election campaign in 2010. “I’m a pub quiz question now, you know,” she tells Cowley, “who was that bigoted woman from Rochdale!?” But she points out that she challenged Brown on several topics ‑ the economy, benefit fraud, education – before she turned to immigration. As Priestley remarked of the changing landscape in southern England in the 1930s, the agents which rendered depressed towns powerless and helpless belonged to the times. Taking back control from Brussels or London just appeared a more tangible and cathartic aspiration than confronting the diffuse and anonymous work of deindustrialisation and globalisation. Cowley dramatises these transnational currents in one of the most effective and closely reported passages in the book detailing the journey of the twenty-three Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2004.
That economics not questions of constitutional revolution or identity are at the root of the despair in England’s industrial towns is brought home when Cowley visits Rochdale to meet Mrs Duffy. In mid-afternoon he could not find a café open as he walked deserted streets. “It was raining, the pavements had a sombre shine and I walked over to the River Roch, streaming silverly through the town centre, the same river that had once powered some of the cotton spinning wheels in the great mills of northern England.” Politics, he reflected, was about place and community. “But what happens when a place loses its purpose?” In Wigan forty years ago Ian Jack asked precisely the same question when he saw how the prodigal employment of coal mines and cotton mills had been replaced by a baked bean plant and a Tupperware factory: “what purpose did the population serve now?”
Helplessness in the face of anonymous global forces is evident closer to home in the case of Cowley’s Aunt Connie, his mother’s eldest sister, and, at ninety, the last living link with his hometown of Harlow in Essex. In 2018 her local surgery, which had opened in 1955, closed abruptly without any discussion with the 3,000 people who depended on it or their representatives. It turned out that Aunt Connie’s clinic and fifty others like it around England were owned by an American insurance company based in St Louis, Missouri run by a chief executive paid £18.5 million a year. “How could Dr Meyrick’s old community NHS practice be controlled and closed without consultation by an insurance conglomerate in Missouri?” The fact that there was no real answer to Cowley’s question, that to press it would be, as Tony Blair remarked about globalisation, like debating whether autumn follows summer, only deepened the local sense of hopelessness.
Aunt Connie’s politics were shaped by the Second World War – her husband had fought as a commando in North Africa – and the welfare state that emerged from the wartime economy. Harlow was a utopian symbol of this optimistic era. By the time the adult Cowley was making his way in literary London in the 1990s he wanted to erase his ties to it; he did not want to be “an Essex man” from a failed town. But when his parents arrived in Harlow in 1959 it was to build a future utopia, a new town characterised by beauty and neighbourliness and more dignified than the London slums destroyed in the Blitz. Growing up, his father reminded him that he owed his opportunities to the idealism of the war generation. But gradually Harlow declined through neglect and underinvestment. Returning to what used to be a family shopping centre in his childhood, Cowley found pound shops and charity stores, fast food takeaways and a Thai massage parlour. Essex supported Leave in the Brexit referendum; in Harlow the vote was 68 per cent, sixteen points above the national total.
Nostalgia for Harlow’s faded promise is also a longing for the wartime sensibility which seemed to have given birth to the sense that Cowley’s parents were building a new utopia. He quotes the economist Paul Collier on the “glorious” years between 1945 and 1970. “It was when it all came together. We inherited a huge asset – a shared sense of purpose coming out of the Second World War, a sense of common endeavour. But it was a wasting asset that needed to be renewed. And both left and right failed to renew it. We are haunted by what was lost.” This veneration of the spirit of the wartime generation leads him to Orwell’s famous essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”, written in 1940. He takes Orwell’s assertion that it was essential to determine “what England is” before figuring out what role it would play in the world as the organising principle for his own exploration of Englishness in the twenty-first century.
But he really values Orwell for his English patriotism. “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty,” Orwell wrote. “In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it.” Orwell’s bold attempt to reclaim patriotism for a progressive purpose during the Second World War is replicated in Cowley’s desire that modern English patriotism can be rescued from the right to provide the nation with the sinews for the national renewal he believes is so urgent. For Cowley, English patriotism is best when it appears to be innocent of political calculation, exemplified by the people of the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett who welcomed dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan while rejecting Tony Blair’s fraudulent wars. “We don’t do what we do at Wootton Bassett for any political reason at all,” the town’s former mayor said, “but to pay our respects to those who have given their lives for our freedom. We are a Christian country and a traditional old English market town who honour very much our Queen and country. We obey the law and pay respects to our servicemen who protect our freedom.”
Cowley contrasts English pragmatism with Scottish zealotry: the Scottish National Party behaves like a one-party state because it conflates love of country with its own interests. To Cowley the modern epitome of Orwell’s decent Englishman is the England football manager Gareth Southgate. Cowley admires him because he is respectful of tradition – the queen, his grandfather’s wartime service ‑ while embracing change. “One is reminded of Orwell’s remark … that the country has “the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same”.
But Cowley can never quite make the case that Englishness needs to be separated from the British nation. Sometimes, he seems convinced that the British identity is disappearing, besieged by the Scottish separatists who “marshal their forces” in the Holyrood parliament. He acknowledges its artificiality, which has been buffeted by the loss of empire and other changes of the last seventy years; Britishness is an affinity serving the institutions of the United Kingdom foisted on the population by officialdom and was at its zenith during the two world wars of the twentieth century.
But at the same time he can claim it is essential. “The notion of Britishness as a binding, cohesive multinational identity still matters greatly.” Walking through Edinburgh on the night of the referendum vote in 2014 he noticed all the Union Jacks hanging from the windows and felt “a surge of sentimental attachment to my own British identity”. He recognises that the particular attraction of Britishness in the twenty-first century is that it offers the possibility of plural identities to those who never warmed to being English. At university his black friends identified as British not English, as did his childhood Italian neighbours in Harlow who celebrated Italy’s World Cup win in 1982 outside his house. He notes how the rapper Stormzy identifies as Black British, wearing a stab-proof vest adorned with a Union Jack in his breakthrough headline performance at Glastonbury in 2019. Central to his sense of community during the pandemic and to restoring a sense of shared sacrifice cherished by his Aunt Connie is the NHS, another British institution.
Where Brexit has left Britain and England is still to be determined but it is useful to compare this moment of national catharsis with the outcome of the Falklands War forty years ago. In July 1982, after the Argentine forces had been driven from Port Stanley, Margaret Thatcher addressed a rally of 5,000 Conservatives at Cheltenham. Those who thought that modern Britain was enfeebled compared to the nation which had once ruled the world were wrong, the prime minister said. Despite appearances, Britain’s inner strength had not been extinguished. “What has indeed happened is that now once again Britain is not prepared to be pushed around. We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a new-found confidence [that] comes from the rediscovery of ourselves and grows the recovery of our self-respect.” Support for the Conservatives surged and Mrs Thatcher served two more terms as prime minister.
Despite comparable rhetoric about rediscovering national greatness during the long denouement of Brexit, the prime minister who finally got it done, Boris Johnson, has been unable to make a similar speech since Britain left the European Union at the end of January last year. Neither has England emerged in sharper definition. “Where’s England?” Donald Trump asked Johnson in August 2019. “What’s happening with England?” More than eighty years after Orwell’s challenge, Cowley writes, “we are still struggling to determine what England is, and what part it can play, in the huge events that are happening.” The struggle goes on.