Below is a review on Paul Kingsnorth's book Real England. Kingsnorth is a journalist, author and has recently co-founded the Dark Mountain project, which might appeal to those of you with an interest in story-telling...


Real England: the Battle Against the Bland
by Paul Kingsnorth
Portobello
£7.99

Surrounded by neighbours who have a clearer sense of identity, it has become fashionable to contemplate what exactly it means to be English in the twenty-first century. While this navel gazing has gone on, England has continued to be developed, high-streets cloned and ‘blandardised’ until any sense of place has been entirely obliterated. As Paul Kingsnorth demonstrates, the lingua franca of this new England (‘prestigious city-orientated regeneration’, ‘business relationship managers’) bears little resemblance to the English it is founded on and even less to the truth.

In Real England, Kingsnorth sets out to chart the destruction not just of the city centre but the countryside. Crossing the country from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire he discovers an all too familiar sensation, small local businesses and the communities they serve, being driven under by corporations while local councils look on – and in some cases actively conspire – to help our towns, cities and countryside become characterless.

The people he encounters – the self-appointed defenders of Englishness however, are as disparate and varied a bunch as you are likely to meet. Italian café owners, Indian market-stall holders, small Devonshire farmers, Daily Telegraph columnists, and Oxford houseboat owners. What unites these individuals is a determination to resist the onset of top-down development. Few, if any of them oppose change, but they want community-led change, not change driven by Tesco or the faceless developers that are determined to prioritize profit over people. This, Kingsnorth argues is nothing more than a class-war in disguise, with those in power removing every last trace of individuality, every last vestige of our rights to do anything other than buy things.

If this makes Real England sound worthy, well it is, in the best sense of the word. It is hard to read about the privatisation of public space in Liverpool, or how easily Tesco can outwit a local council with any equanimity, nor should it be. But despite its rallying cry, Real England is not a polemic. Kingsnorth writes movingly and with no little humour of situations that would make others rant. In Bury St Edmunds an ancient curse is invoked against the CEO of Debenhams, by a torchlit procession of men dressed as medieval knights, in Devon he meets a landlord who runs a pub from her front room.

By allowing real people a platform to voice their concerns, Real England actually achieves what so many books about English identity fail to, it defines the English in all our quirkiness, passion and purpose. It also warns us that if we do not do something about the relentless standardisation of this country, we will be just as culpable, as the nation is transformed from one of citizens into one of consumers: profiled, segmented, and as barcoded as the contents of our shopping baskets, all the while fantasising about an England and a countryside that this very lifestyle is eroding.

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Tags: england, environment, knigsnorth, local, paul, real, society, supermarkets, tesco

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Comment by Brian James Gibb on October 31, 2009 at 0:56
mmmm It's late and it's an awffy sma box to write in, hence the typos above and that I should have posted the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xh5M1pxT5Zg&feature=related
ta :)
Comment by Brian James Gibb on October 31, 2009 at 0:51
The thread of this is something I resonate strongly with, that identity is key to the health of society and from that the health of the world within wich the actors enact this identity. If one feels oneself subsumed and powerless within a cancerous (not too strong a word I hope) system then so it continues. The non sense of nationalism as expressed by such as Nick Griffin has to be transcended. ('find it funny that if he was to really hold true to his 'welsh folk community' roots he'd find that in the folktale his surname derives from the roman office of graphione, ruffly a sergeant-at-arms to a law court..making him of latin descent, hardly surprising when the even word welsh derives from one of the two key terms that these 'barbarian' peoples used for the foreigners that they encountered: Thralls (slaves/Slavs?) and Wallais (latinate: Wallachia, Walloons, Welsh, an' oor guid man Wallace) ) anyway enough of the obscure. It is definitely time, I feel, for England to remove itself from it's negative/dominating conflict ridden identity and celebrate the cultures grand and humanising history, and, to hopefully realise these strengths. To this end please check this link of an old poem interpreted in a (reasonably) modern form with an inspired connection to some recent visuals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gd3xHaV20lE

THere is more to say here about Scotlands choice to have a nation based upon a civic order; if youre here and participate within the precepts of the culture then it doesn't matter where you're from. (Note that along with our standardised English there are at least three other languages in the Doric, Lallans and the Gaedhlig, never mind that of the northern isles and the scots traveller (Griffin y' gadjii :) )
Also that beyond the tight and tortuous tautologies of the 'reason' of that accepted as politic we human have a lot more we do draw upon from emotional intelligence, and our striving to create that beautiful place which I reckon we all deep down do believe is where we were born.

and maybe even Nick Griffin will mind that Churchill was a brickie (and a damned guid ane).
Comment by Rob on October 26, 2009 at 12:41
Thanks for your comments Nick, much appreciated. To pick up on the story-telling thread, while the book itself offers individuals the chance to have their stories recorded, my reference was more towards the Dark Mountain Project, which seems to have grown out of 'Real England' to an extent. Kingsnorth's latest idea, is, to quote the website: "to question the stories that underpin our failing civilisation, to craft new ones for the age ahead and to write clearly and honestly about our true place in the world." There's more on the project here: http://www.dark-mountain.net/ They are planning a collaborative piece via mail (electronic and, the post office strike permitting, conventional mail) though I have some reservations about their invitation: "Artists, technologists, writers, activists and all other living beings are invited to correspond with each other across physical and digital mail networks" -- what other living beings do they have in mind exactly? Badgers perhaps? That aside, the spirit of collaboration seems to fit well with Fiery Spirits, so might warrant further investigation?
Comment by Nick Wilding on October 26, 2009 at 12:03
Hi Rob

MANY thanks for posting such a considered, empassioned, stirring review! I'll add Real England to the 'reading room' booklist immediately and will flag up this post - thinking particularly to the folk working on the Tesco campaign in Wales (see earlier blog) but also more widely. I've also had an idea to create a 'book review' section in the reading room so hopefully you might have just started a trend...

I'm wondering whether there might be practice implications coming out of Paul's writing? You say the book might be of interest for people who are into story-telling ... is this because you are making a link between restoring the roots of identity and belonging in places through story-telling as an anti-dote to the modernist standardisation you talk about here? If not, tell me more?

On the radio (4) today, coming into work, there was a fascinating snippet from a man who has returned to Saudi Arabia thirty years after the oil boom to see how society has changed.... what struck me most was that he described how the folks are suffering a kind of ennui ... a boredom to do with lacking connection with traditions and the communities they all moved out of (to the suberbs) when the oil wealth meant that everyone could afford to build their own hacienda (reminds me of the boomtime in the 'celtic tiger'... that's another story). Anyway, instead of the whole community coming out to have celebrations as they used to, the reporter told stories of hiring anonymous halls and hiding away in houses.

So, everywhere traditional culture is eroded by modernity it seems something is robbed from our souls; and the quirkiness that you talk about in Kingsnorth's analysis feel like a fantastic way to recover a sense of what makes places different, special, individual - and welcoming to all?

Having lived in Scotland now for fifteen years and experiencing the regeneration of a more positive Scottish identity (I see the emergence of the SNP government as one effort to express this), I really agree that English identity is a crucial issue - thrown into even sharper relief by the BNP appearance on question time...

Curious on more thoughts on all this....

Nick

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