Where is England?

If countries are geographies understood through the culture of those who inhabit them, then what is England?

Ken Worpole
3 December 2013
Canvey Wick Essex_March 2013.jpg

Canvey Wick, Essex, March 2013 © Jason Orton

Nation states may be imaginary communities, but the territory they occupy possesses a material form. Over time and through a variety of forms of representation – poetry, fiction, music, the visual arts – this geology and ecology, is eventually said to embody the essence of national identity, even to the extent of acquiring the status of the sacred. At the end of the 19th century in Europe, this process was accelerated by the cultural mood music of National Romanticism, strong in literature but even more emphatic in music, especially in the work of composers such as Bartok, Granados, Grieg, Sibelius, Janacek, Smetana, Vaughan Williams and Wagner, most of whom incorporated folk music and oral legend as an integral part of the material they worked on. Many other composers did the same.

Historian Simon Schama devoted an influential book to this subject, Landscape and Memory, but his broad overview sometimes disallowed him from charting some of the more detailed shifts of loyalty within national traditions themselves. In England, for example, the geographical locus of Englishness has been a moveable feast. For many, Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford upon Avon was no accident, being ‘seen as rooted in the geographical and linguistic heart of pastoral England,’ according to historian Alun Howkins. In the early 20th century Hilaire Belloc and Edward Thomas ‘created the world of the South Country and fixed it as a part of national ideology’. It could be argued that the need for an over-lush pastoral was a reaction against the blasted terrain of the Flanders battlefields occasioned by the First World War, and a reaction against the aesthetics of flatlands and prairie skies.

Schama himself argued that the upper Thames valley was the most frequently evoked geographical heart of Englishness, whether in the novels of Henry James, in spirited divertissements such as Three Men in a Boat and Wind in the Willows, or even in utopian tracts such as William Morris’s News from Nowhere. ‘It supplied,'  he suggested, ‘the prototypical image that was reproduced in countless paintings, engravings, postcards, railway train photographs, and war posters, which merely had to be executed to summon up loyalty to the temperate, blessed, isle.’

Yet what is considered beautiful in landscape changes over time. Most of Europe has now been at peace for seventy years, during which time rapid industrialisation, and subsequent post-industrial decline have altered many European regions irrevocably. Can we continue to insist that the study and representation of landscape remains a matter of picturesque, national-romantic or modernist frames of reference? Landscape aesthetics is now surely a much more shape-shifting and muscular affair, looking for new territories to explore in its own belated realisation of ‘the shock of the new’.

Which is why British topographical writing has been dominated in recent times by the landscapes of East Anglia, with an increasing interest in the particularities of estuarine and post-industrial Essex. If landscape and national identity are uneasy familiars or surrogates of each other, it is worth asking what is Englishness today if its favoured topography is based on the low horizons and cold seas of its eastern approaches? Why is it no longer just the psycho-geographers who find the suburban edgelands, the destabilising mix of the industrial and the pastoral and the decaying maritime and seashore, so challenging, when compared with former folkloric homeland imagery?

Mersea Island_Essex_February 2013.jpg

Mersea Island, Essex, February 2013 © Jason Orton

The work of the German-born writer W.G.Sebald has proved to be especially important to the re-imagining of East Anglia and indeed to Englishness itself, having woven England back into a European narrative, his writings emphasising the inter-connectedness of the eastern shoreline with the dark sites of European history.

Downriver, the Thames has played its part in global history too. For Joseph Conrad the river’s wide estuary was both mysteriously beautiful but also ‘one of the dark places of the earth’, where Britain’s imperial reach began, and where for a very long time the slave trade brought immense wealth to ship-owners and traders. ‘The conquest of the earth,’ he wrote, ‘which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’

Places of departure are, however, also places of arrival: empire proved to be a two-way street. On 22 June 1948, a former German cruise-ship, seized by the British at the end of the war and re-named MV Empire Windrush, brought 493 Jamaicans to Tilbury Port to start a new life in Britain, many of them encouraged to come to work in growing public services such as health and transport. In denial about the historic legacies of empire, the irony was honed into the quizzical observation that ‘we asked for workers and got people’.

In February 2006 the UK belatedly endorsed the European Landscape Convention (also known as the Florence Convention) adopted by the Council of Europe on 20 October 2000, and which came into force on 1 March 2004. Article 5 states that ‘each party undertakes to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.’ A growing appreciation of the importance of place now goes to the heart of politics, public aesthetics and cultural identity, and the bucolic and the arcadian will no longer do. It is time to take a long hard look at where and how we live, and how we might inhabit these new landscapes in more meaningful and sustainable ways.

Ken Worpole' new book, with photographer Jason Orton, The New English Landscape, has just been published. They blog at:

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