Paths of history: letter from Nottingham

Fred Halliday
19 October 2006

The city of Nottingham, a two-hour train journey north from London through the green and settled landscape of England's east Midlands, is at first sight a place where past and present have settled into harmonious accord. A closer view suggests that here as elsewhere, the currents of change sweeping the world are challenging this relationship in ways that escape easy narratives of progress.

The buildings on either side of the railway tracks indicate the less even and more contested layers of Nottingham's history. On the left, on a hill that juts sharply above the valley of the River Trent, is the castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1068, and later developed by Henry II; this was the site of Charles I's raising of the royal standard in 1642, the launch of the English counter-revolution (or, as it is still coyly termed, "the English civil war").

It subsequently became the residence of the Duke of Nottingham, who sought to reproduce the French and Italian palatial style he had seen during his exile from the civil war in the 1650s. In 1831, the castle was burnt down by a crowd protesting at the failure of the fourth duke, then the sitting member of parliament, to support the Reform Act of the previous year. As with so much of world history, the echoes of the Paris barricades had clearly reached this corner of England.

Today, the castle stands in an apparently tranquil park; but it does not take long to detect signs of earlier struggles, near and far. The east wing of the castle, rebuilt later in the 19th century and site of the first municipal museum in Britain outside London, seeks to capture some of the grandeur of its 17th-century predecessor; but pride of place is also given to the smashed and headless remains of the equestrian statue of the duke which was torn apart in 1831.

Around the corner, looking down on the modernist tubular headquarters of the government's taxation authorities, is a small parade-ground, first used in 1857 by the Robin Hood Fusiliers - a regiment that in 1940, as the Sherwood Foresters, distinguished itself in the defence of Belgium. Further down the hill is an obelisk commemorating those who died in the Afghan war of 1879-80 (many from their wounds, but even more from illness). The names of the battles commemorated - Kandahar, Maiwand, Sarkhilel - are eerily familiar from press accounts of the current British and Nato military deployments in Afghanistan.

The view to the right of the railway tracks carries a different history. A nondescript, rundown factory-building belonging to a maker of women's underwear) testifies to the long association of this city with the hosiery and lace business, of which it was the production centre for many years. The composition of the workforce meant that there was a significant surplus of adult women among the population.

Nottingham lies on the eastern edge of the industrial core of England. In the early 1800s, it witnessed the mass resistance to industrial coercion known as "Luddism", after their mythical leader, General Ludd. The movement, which lasted for five years and forced the deployment of 12,000 troops, has been described as "collective bargaining by riot". Its practitioners smashed machines by night, not so much in protest at the machines themselves, as at the terms of labour imposed by the textile manufacturers.

The journey across the remnants of Nottingham's industrial past continues. In the early part of the 20th century, Nottingham's economy was dominated by three branches of industry: the chemical manufacturers Boots, whose founder, Jesse Boot, donated in 1928 the land on which the university now stands; the cigarette manufacturers, Players; and the bicycle factories of Raleigh - factories which formed the backdrop to the best-selling novel by Nottingham-born writer Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, later made into a noteworthy film with Albert Finney, one of the first in post-war Britain to explore issues of sexuality and abortion, and to escape the cloying banalities of Ealing studios and the simplistic celebration of the second world war.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

"America and Arabia after Saddam"
(May 2004)

"Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects"
(March 2005)

"An encounter with Mr X" (March 2005)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005)

"Political killing in the cold war" (August 2005)

"Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'"
(September 2005)

"A transnational umma: myth or reality?" (October 2005)

"The 'Barcelona process': ten years on" (November 2005)

"The United Nations vs the United States" (January 2006)

"Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)

"Iran vs the United States – again" (February 2006)

"Terrorism and delusion" (April 2006)

"The forward march of women halted?"
(May 2006)

"Letter from Ground Zero" (May 2006)

"Finland's moment in the sun" (June 2006)

"A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah"(July 2006)

"In time of war: reason amid rockets"
(August 2006)

"Lebanon, Israel, and the 'greater west Asian crisis'" (August 2006)

"Fidel Castro's legacy: Cuban conversations"
(August 2006)

" Warsaw’s populist twins"
(September 2006)

"The left and the jihad" (September 2006)

"España: memory for the future"
(20 October 2006)

History and heritage

Nottingham, then, is a city never far from the ebb and flow of world events. In May 1941, it was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The history of the city's post-war economy is one of continued deindustrialisation in response to global trends: today Boots, which has sold its medicine manufacturing to a foreign company, retains only storage depots, and Raleigh has moved all manufacturing of bicycles to China. 9/11 also made its mark, as employment in the Rolls Royce aviation factory in nearby Derby fell in response to the worldwide downturn in the airline industry following the al-Qaida attack. Instead service industries for taxation, financial services and credit cards have moved in.

This is still a working city. But, with 350 drinking places crammed into a small space in the centre of town, mass inebriation and drug-taking are a major social problem, and there has been a spate of gun crime that has somewhat dented the city's confidence. On the corner of Watkin Street, in the tense district of St Ann's, residents still place flowers on a lamppost to commemorate the shooting of a teenage boy in February 2002.

But it is not just the present that is fraught: the complexity and weight of the city's past has led to the construction of a particular, selective, narrative of the town's history, identity and tourist "heritage". As elsewhere, this construction can be studied for what it includes and highlights, but also for what it omits. And both inclusion and exclusion are evident in the construction of heritage in modern Nottingham.

At first, Nottingham has a high narrative of respectable claims on the tourist attention: in my hotel, the two lifts sport portraits of, respectively, Charles I and Lord Byron, the poet who died fighting for Greek independence in 1819, but who lived for several years near Nottingham and whose heart is said to be buried in a nearby church.

But by far the most famous personage associated with Nottingham is the medieval brigand Robin Hood. This legendary figure, putatively operating from his base in nearby Sherwood Forest, has been the subject of a cascade of literary works, scholarly studies, films, and television series across the generations, from the time of his first mention in William Langland's Piers Plowman (1377).

Not for nothing is one of the main streets of the city named after his noble paramour - Maid Marion Way - while, in deference to Hood's loyalty to the absent Richard I, away fighting the Muslims in the Holy Land, a well-known pub is called The Crusader. The city's tourist attractions are replete with misty portraits of a bucolic anti-authoritarian era. Such is the enduring hold of this theme that the university has recently introduced a new one-year master's programme (or "pathway") in the study of Robin Hood.

The other city

This safe, counter-revolutionary and crypto-aristocratic heritage flies in the face of another, much more uneasy, Nottingham history. This is evident partly in the history of the Luddites and the 1831 insurrectionists, but also in the long list of dissidents who have in one way or another arrived, belonged to or worked from here. Alan Sillitoe, still active, is one; Graham Greene, who worked on the local paper as an apprentice journalist, is a second; Bertrand Russell, whose peace foundation (still located in "Russell House") chose to move its activities to the city in the 1960s, is a third. But by far the most important such local writer, a figure at once recognised and excluded, honoured and despised, is David Herbert Lawrence.

DH Lawrence was born in 1885 in Eastwood, eight miles northwest of Nottingham, in a coal-miner's cottage. The majority of his novels - among them Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover - are set in the villages of this area.

Lawrence represents, of course, a dissident whom no amount of tourist makeover can easily assimilate. Why it should have been that the agonised but perceptive early 20th-century recognition of the force of human emotion and libido should emerged here (as well as in the salons of middle-class Vienna) is for others to say. But Lawrence's home city and country has far from come to terms with this raw and brilliant man.

The English have a way of relegating their unwanted figures, denying them either the symbolic commemoration (in pub names, for example), which their "great" names automatically acquire or, for the most part, any public monument or statue. Lawrence does have one statue, but it is in the grounds of the university, a "safe" and largely unseen site. There seems no street, no district, no public house named after him, although those so included might divine a repressed Lawrentian element in the names of the drinking dens that do line the entrance to Eastwood: The White Bull and The Hayloft.

Lawrence's birthplace in Eastwood, a two-storey miner's cottage, lies within easy walk and sight of the countryside and the villages he celebrated in his novels. In his earlier years he spent much time in the region and talked wistfully of his earlier years there, in what he termed "the country of my heart". But, in marked contrast to the fate accorded to, for example, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters or James Joyce, there is (apart from the restyled Victorian interior of his place of birth) little organised tourist interest in the places depicted in his novels.

Before the first world war, Lawrence broke with this area, married his German wife Frieda, and rarely returned. Yet the themes imbued in his early years here - the contortions and desires of the human spirit, the inhibitions and tensions of social class - never left him, even as he travelled across Europe and north America until his death in 1930.

On a boat from Sicily to Sardinia in the early 1920s he found himself looking at the peasant passengers in their stocking-caps and their rough manners (Sea and Sardinia). He wonders if the forces of enlightenment and homogenising world unity will sweep them away. After a moment of hesitation he celebrates the fact that they will not prevail: instead, he detects a turn in world culture and opinion towards difference and rivalry:

"For myself, I am glad. I am glad that the era of love and oneness is over: hateful homogeneous world-oneness. I am glad that Russia flies back into savage Russianism ... that America is doing the same. I shall be glad when men hate their common, world-alike clothes, when they treat them up and clothe themselves fiercely for distinction, savage distinction, savage distinction against the rest of the creeping world".

The 1930s were to go far towards realising that vision, with costs Lawrence could never have envisaged or welcomed. As much as his explorations of human desire and social class, the dilemma he raises here - of the simultaneous desirability of variety and the danger of fragmentation - is equally a feature of the world since 2001.

It is this recognition of the tensions of human existence and of modern society that marks Lawrence out as one of the greatest writers of modern times: uneasy with the conventions, and false solutions, that established life enjoins. The work of a man dead for more than seventy-six years is still far ahead of the triviality and narcissism of much contemporary British fiction. Like his fellow Nottingham dissidents, Lawrence was a man who did not accept an easy location or easy answers.

No wonder the citizens of Nottingham, and the creators of tourist-narrative orthodoxy, find him too uncomfortable a part of their heritage to celebrate. Perhaps here, rather than in mythic jousting with Robin Hood, lies the ultimate revenge of the worthy burghers - not to say sheriffs - of Nottingham.

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