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
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.