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The End of the Affair:
National Identity in the Age of Devolution

by Alan Pulverness, Norwich Institute for Language Education

This paper was given as a plenary at the British Studies conference, 'New Directions, New Opportunities', organised by the British Council, in Puławy, March 2000. See the Conference proceedings for other papers.

The less we see of the old country, the more we see of the red and white. The English are waking up. St George is out of the closet and nationalism is in the air.

(Darcus Howe White Tribe)

Look at video footage of the England vs Germany final in the 1966 World Cup, and you'll see England supporters waving the Union Jack; fast forward 30 years to England vs Scotland in the Euro 96 championship, and England supporters have reclaimed the cross of St George as a visible assertion of their group identity. One year later, the Scots vote in the referendum for devolution and last year the opening of the Scottish parliament - and the Welsh Assembly - seem to be the first formal steps towards what many suspect will eventually be the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Devolution has prompted a mood of national introspection. The notion of British nationality, like the Union Jack, no longer seems quite appropriate, and the English are being forced by political events to confront the question of their national identity. Over the last couple of years, a prodigious number of newspaper and magazine articles, books and television programmes have addressed an issue which had previously been a non-issue, except to a handful of extreme right-wing demagogues - the nature of Englishness.

I want to discuss - and look at extracts from - two recent examples of this trend, and to use these texts as a basis for suggesting practical approaches for the language-and-culture classroom. My examples are two television series transmitted in February 2000: White Tribe (on Channel 4) and The Day Britain Died (on BBC 2).

  • Both programmes were concerned with the current climate of national uncertainty, White Tribe investigating the self-image of the English and The Day Britain Died attempting to locate key moments in post-war British history that may be seen as signalling the 'death' of Britain as a nation-state.
  • Both are examples of first-person journalism, made and presented by political commentators (Darcus Howe and Andrew Marr) whose own opinions, beliefs - and to some extent, autobiographies - are salient features of their 'texts'. Both men live in London, but were born and brought up outside England - Darcus Howe in Trinidad and Andrew Marr in Scotland.
  • Both are concerned with the same areas of political and social change and both use similar 'textual' strategies: a combination of interviews conducted in a wide range of locations and sometimes deliberately intrusive 'authorial' commentary. White Tribe adopts the narrative structure of a journey around England, while the 'signpost' dates marking the decline of the idea of Britain provide the organising principle for The Day Britain Died.
  • The interviews in both series often become argumentative, or even adversarial, and both programme makers exploit the dramatic potential of the medium.
  • Each episode of White Tribe begins with a montage of clips from scenes shown in full later on; interview footage is often interspersed with straight-to-camera comment by Darcus Howe; and a freeze-frame technique is sometimes used to halt an interview, so that Howe can interpose a voice-over comment.
  • Each episode of The Day Britain Died begins with a dramatic sketch of a dystopian future - imagining in turn Scottish/English border controls with Draconian penalties imposed for smuggling contraband goods, the discovery of a time capsule containing mysterious objects - such as the Union Jack! - whose significance is no longer understood, and a mixed-race couple, whose application to have a baby is refused because they are suspected of taking direct action against genetically modified agriculture.
  • Finally, both programmes have been supplemented by further texts: the final episode of White Tribe being followed by a live studio debate and The Day Britain Died appearing as a book, published to coincide with transmission of the series.

Darcus Howe begins his quasi-anthropological quest for the "white tribe" with a consciously biblical echo: I have been travelling around this country for 40 days and 40 nights - a prophet in search of a lost tribe, perhaps. The quest takes him to major cities and rural villages; to a seaside resort "on its last legs" and to so-called "sink estates" - neglected housing estates ravaged by high levels of unemployment and crime; to a 300-acre farm that hosts the local fox hunt and to the London suburb notorious for the murder of the young black man, Stephen Lawrence. The edited itinerary runs as follows:

Southall, Middlesex

Sikh festival/white minority

Stow-on-the Wold, Cotswolds

lessons in wine-tasting

Birmingham

line dancing/shopping mall

Peterborough, Lincolnshire

black male strippers

Skegness, Lincolnshire

Conservative annual dinner

Manchester

Bernard Manning (comedian)

Oldham, nr Manchester

housing estate/racial exclusion

Eltham, South London

site of Stephen Lawrence murder

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Anglo-Saxon revivalism

Hockwold cum Wilton, Norfolk

campaign for an English parliament

Dover

Kosovan asylum seekers/newspaper editor

Loughton, Essex

exclusive 'secure' estate

Grangetown, Cleveland

'sink' estate/closed circuit TV

Tynedale, Northumbria

landowner/foxhunt

Todmorden, Yorkshire

community centre/Buddhists

Howe's approach is informed - and sometimes disturbed - by his own identity as an Afro-Caribbean Londoner, but his research methodology is scrupulously empirical and driven by a genuine spirit of cultural curiosity. He begins with the intuitive feeling that these people are in a crisis - something is finished - there's nothing in its place - and anything can happen. He wants to try to find out who the English are and what English culture - or more precisely English cultures - might consist of. Any such endeavour, even over the span of three one-hour programmes, is bound to be selective and whatever conclusions are reached can easily be challenged as giving a partial - even unrepresentative - portrait of a subject as diverse as a whole country. Indeed, some reviewers simply dismissed the programmes as insignificant because they focused on the particularity (or eccentricity) of individuals rather than attempting to capture a broader political or sociological perspective. The limitations of the personal vignette approach, I think, are self-evident, and many less ambitious TV documentaries settle for mere eccentricity as a source of undemanding entertainment. What these reviewers did not seem to take account of, however, were Howe's seriousness of purpose and the overall reach of his series - a frequent shortcoming of TV reviews that only focus on one episode of a series.

What I found constantly fascinating about White Tribe was the interplay between Howe and the sub-cultures he discovers. At times this produces a palpable tension for the presenter that is transmitted to the viewer in all its raw discomfort - for example, a lingering shot of Howe standing outside the Newcastle football ground, the only black face amidst a sea of white supporters streaming out of the stadium, confessing in a voice-over that at that moment he lacked the courage to speak to anyone; or in Eltham, at the site of Stephen Lawrence's murder, saying that he has always held Britain in high regard …associated it with 'green and pleasant', but that the opposite of 'green', the opposite of ' pleasant' is just 'red blood and horrible'; he goes on say I know these people should be allowed to celebrate St George's Day - it's their country - but in Eltham when you know what happened here, you want to know 'What is there for you to celebrate?'

In terms of this dialogic relationship between the presenter and his material, the most interesting of all the fifteen locations he visits are Bernard Manning's comedy club and the Northumbria farm. At the club, he feels profoundly uncomfortable at the racist jokes of a comedian whose performances he had previously campaigned to have banned; yet by the end of this visit he admits to finding much of the performance extremely funny and regrets the fact that the club is on its last legs - I didn't want to see another piece of traditional English culture wiped out by political correctness. On the farm, where he stays overnight on the eve of the hunt, he had expected to have little sympathy with Mary, the upper class landowner, but again he admits to his surprise: She has strong roots in this pleasant land and refuses to break her links with it and its ancient rituals. I can't help liking her for that. She won me over almost immediately. Mary also sees herself as a member of a newly marginalised minority, struggling to preserve their rights, a position that also evokes a positive response in Howe's commentary: The whole establishment have been transformed into rebels, who take to the streets to demonstrate against any encroachment on their version of Englishness.

After particularly depressing encounters with residents of Dover, who are able to single out the Kosovan and Slovak asylum seekers from their "swarthy" appearance, Howe comments: That citadel called Englishness, which has established itself over generations, with more sentiment than any other culture in the world, that has been stormed - the gates have been torn down, and we have all entered it - black, brown, swarthy. Howe's conclusion is that England is a country absolutely terrified of the future and obsessed by the past. And in his summing-up, he depicts a country that has been transformed from an export culture into an import culture, with everything that implies:

I arrived in a country where every stereotype was true - the stiff upper lip and the early nights, the bland food, the bad skin, the 'please' and 'thank you'. Now all that certainty has been replaced by something more spicy, less dependable, less English as it was then.

When I started this journey, I thought you were all in the midst of rejecting Englishness, in the grip of an identity crisis. Now I'm not so sure. The new England isn't what I was expecting. It is Buddhism and aromatherapy, Big Mac and line dancing, French wine, a German car, Italian coffee. The culture of England is the culture of the globe. It cannot resist it.

Each episode of The Day Britain Died is prefaced by a mock funeral, the coffin draped in a Union Jack, the pallbearers representatives of various sectors of Old Britain. (Just in case we have missed the point) as the coffin is lowered into the grave, the traditional handfuls of earth are thrown on top of the flag, and start to obscure it. At the end of the final episode, this funeral procession is repeated, augmented with snippets of interviews from the three programmes:

Marr's series shares some of the picaresque flavour of Howe's - he also travels: to Scotland, to Wales, to various locations in England, to France and to Denmark. Marr also writes himself into his narrative - quite literally, as shots of him supposedly writing his book are interspersed throughout the films. But he pursues a more analytical agenda, focusing in turn on a series of possible 'coffin nails' leading up to the 'burial' of Britain. These appear through the three films as yellow 'post-it' notes, which he sticks up around his study (though like Darcus Howe's destinations, they appear in a thematically coherent sequence, rather than the chronological order shown here):

1945

We lose our enemy

1948

Windrush - Black Britain

1970s

Wales protests

1971

We join 'Europe'

1975

The end of the World War cult

1980s

"Selling the silver"

1990

Poll tax riots

1991

The World Wide Web

1997

Devolution

1998

Countryside march

1999

Hague 'speaks for England'

[It is perhaps significant that the 1984 miners' strike - surely a social and political turning point worth acknowledging - is absent from this list]

Marr, too, meets people on his travels, though his encounters appear to have been more planned than Howe's, many of whose interviewees are people spontaneously approached in the course of filming. Marr's itinerary is as follows:

Scotland
  • football supporters
  • A L Kennedy (novelist)
  • Alan Taylor (editor The Scotsman)
  • boat-builders
Wales
  • Daffyd Iwan (Welsh protest singer)
England

  • Pat Mills (war comics cartoonist)
  • Cyning Meadowcroft (Campaign for an English parliament)
  • Yasmin Albhai-Brown (Asian journalist)
  • Peter Hitchens (right-wing journalist)
  • Nigel Farage (UK Independent MEP)
  • Sir Bernard Ingham (Mrs Thatcher's Press Secretary)
  • Billy Bragg (singer-songwriter)
  • George Monbiot (anti-GM foods campaigner)
  • Robin Page (TV presenter/countryside campaigner)
  • Aniruddah Das (singer, Asian Dub Foundation)
  • Mukheen Ahmed (Bangladeshi restaurateur)
  • Bashir Ahmed (African Asian artist)
England/France
  • Derek Nickolds (lorry driver)
France
  • Philippe Chatenay (French journalist)
  • Alain Liepitz (Green MEP)
Denmark
  • Anders Dahlvig (Chief Executive, Ikea)

As a political analyst and former editor of a national newspaper, Marr pursues the question of 'Britishness vs Englishness' in a much more systematic way than Howe's very personal odyssey. He, too, editorialises and sometimes argues with his interviewees, though in a conventionally polite, debating chamber fashion. Where Howe always seems to be professionally himself, even when posing challenging questions with a necessary degree of detachment to self-declared racists, Marr is professionally a journalist, even when re-visiting the site of his old school.

Both presenters provide us with highly quotable 'soundbites', though Marr's seem to be rather less spontaneous, with the air of having been carefully polished and refined, eg:

  • On nationalism: Nationalism is an anti-somebody thing; it's about distorting history and telling yourself comforting, boozy stories.
  • On entry into the single European currency: History is one thing, but we have to make a living in the here and now.

Where Howe begins with questions and is sometimes surprised by the answers he finds, Marr is more concerned with presenting a finished analysis - product rather than process. The cast of characters in White Tribe covers a wider demographic range, from a member of the House of Lords to the unemployed residents of a Cleveland housing estate. The voices heard in The Day Britain Died are mostly those of politicians, artists and fellow-journalists. Yet both series touch on similar issues - the effects of globalisation, the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural face of new Britain, and of course the effects of devolution on the English psyche - and both reach broadly similar conclusions. Marr's closing diagnosis echoes Howe's in its characterisation of the adjustment from export culture to import culture and the accompanying reversal of transitivity:

After centuries of reaching out to the world and doing things to it, the world has come home and is changing us.

Both series are examples of a text-type that should not only be intrinsically appealing to students, but which should add depth of understanding and empathy to any study of the historical origins of nationality or the political facts of devolution. This kind of first-person journalism may be partial, or even prejudiced, but it conveys the sense of 'lived experience' that is missing from most conventional histories and political analyses. It carries risks for the unwary teacher or student, but it is precisely these risks that can provide the basis for challenging classroom approaches that are relevant to both the enterprises of language learning and cultural studies.


The following approaches - by no means an exhaustive list - suggest some of the directions that the teacher of language-and-culture might take with this kind of text. I happen to have been using video, but they would be equally applicable to other 'first person' texts:

Preview 'soundbites'/key dates/facts đ contextualise & identify

Prediction activities replicate the natural curiosity of the reader/viewer. If elements of a text are de-contextualised, so that learners are impelled to focus on the missing context, sensitivity to the importance of context will be enhanced.

Profiling topic selection

As with print journalism, a simple process of content analysis will reveal as much in terms of what has been left out as it does in noticing what has been selected.

Differentiating fact from opinion

As Richard Bolt points out in his paper, "All sources hide as well as reveal - not only facts but attitudes and values - never take them at face value, always 'see through' them with your own experience and critical awareness and let it guide you to further questioning." Journalistic texts offer the learner a particularly challenging blend of fact and opinion, opinion that is often shrouded in a plausible layer of apparently factual information. Distinguishing one from the other is a fundamental skill for developing a critical approach to texts.

Critical language analysis

Identifying sub-text is an essential skill in Cultural Studies. Students need to develop linguistic sensitivity that will take them beyond denotative meaning to respond to connotation, implicature and ideologically loaded terminology.

Analysing metaphor

"Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 3) Metaphor can be a peculiarly revealing indicator of the speaker/writer's culturally and socially determined position. Interpreting the significance of metaphorical expression is a key component of critical language awareness.

Summarising/paraphrasing

Summarising and paraphrasing may appear to be rather mechanical language activities with little critical significance. But encouraging learners to produce their own texts, whether through the selective processes involved in summarising or the implicitly dialogic process of paraphrasing, will favour the development of critical distance.

Accumulate definitions of key terms: match with speakers

Another very simple task is the collection and attribution of key language items. The outcome is likely to be a sharper awareness of the way in which language is always freighted with ideological assumptions.

Identifying presenter's/writer's perspective (declared/implied)

The TV presenter carries a built-in aura of reliability. Again, the learner needs to develop the observational and analytical skills to interrogate this apparent authority, to be suspicious of the teller as well as the tale.

Comparison/contrast of structure; presence/intervention of 'author'; style

Texts in tandem will tend to be mutually illuminating; comparing and contrasting two texts is likely to reveal more about both than in-depth analysis of just one of them. 1 + 1, in Adam Dalton's formulation, can equal 3.


Bibliography

  • Cameron L & G Low [Eds] (1999) Researching and Applying Metaphor Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Clark R & R Ivanią (1997) The Politics of Writing London: Routledge
  • Fairclough N (1989) Language and Power London: Longman
  • Fairclough N [Ed] (1992) Critical Language Awareness London: Longman
  • Fairclough N (1995) Media Discourse London: Arnold
  • Fairclough N (2000) New Labour, New Language? London: Routledge
  • Heffer S (1999) Nor Shall My Sword. The reinvention of England London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • Hitchens P (1999) The Abolition of Britain. From Lady Chatterly to Tony Blair London: Quartet
  • Lakoff G & M Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Marr A (2000) The Day Britain Died London: Profile Books
  • Paxman J (1998) The English. A portrait of a people London: Michael Joseph


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