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J. Carter Wood © 2002

 

 
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On Billy Bragg's and Colin MacInnes's England, Half English

Colin MacInnes's 1961 book, English, Half English, opens with an essay about Tommy Steele. Now half forgotten, Steele was then "the English Elvis", and his phenomenon allows MacInnes to comment on a notable curiosity of late 50s British pop music. "The battle for a place among the top twenty", he observes, "has been won by British singers at the cost of splitting their personalities and becoming bi-lingual: speaking American at the recording session, and English in the pub round the corner afterwards." Referring to Steele, MacInnes notes:

In his film or when, on the stage, he speaks to his admirers between the songs, his voice takes on the flat, wise, dryly comical tones of purest Bermondsey. When he sings, the words (where intelligible) are intoned in the shrill international American-style drone. With this odd duality, his teenage fans seem quite at ease: they prefer him to be one of them in his unbuttoned moments, but expect him to sing in a near foreign tongue: rather as a congregation might wish the sermon to be delivered in the vernacular, and the plainsong chanted in mysterious Latin.

The essay, "Young England, Half English", was originally written in December 1957, when a certain group of Liverpool lads was still known as the Quarry Men. At least in their early career, the Beatles too would exhibit a similar "odd duality": their vocals, and often the songs themselves were American while the band's film and press presence was unmistakably English. However, the 60s were to see a British pop cultural explosion that brought the English vernacular distinctly to the fore. From the Kinks and the Who through the Jam, Sex Pistols, the Clash, Blur and Pulp (along with countless others), Englishness proved its popularity and marketability, a trend more recently mined by the government under that Third-Way recycling program known "Cool Britannia".

With only a few exceptions, MacInnes's accusation of pop bi-lingualism could never be applied to the long career of Billy Bragg. Bragg has, since his 1983 mini-album Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, worn his Essex origins—and accent—as unmistakably as a workingman's flat cap. Almost twenty years and numerous albums later (not counting EPs and assorted other projects) he has delivered English, Half English. The first album of completely original material since 1996's William Bloke sees Bragg in his typically ambiguous mode, alternatively taking to the barricades or weeping heartbroken into his beer. However, it is also a self-conscious musical exploration of his most constant touring companion: Englishness.

By no means all of MacInnes's commentaries address what it meant to be "English" in the late 50s. The book collects eighteen of the author's essays originally commissioned for The Twentieth Century, Encounter, New Left Review, Satire Review and Cahiers des Saisons. Its contents twist and shout to the tense rhythms of late 50s culture, connected by, if anything, the changing face of English (he rarely uses the term "British") life. For instance, he emphasizes the explosive potential of an age of relative prosperity and the increasing influence of other cultures:

The nineteen fifties were an astonishing decade: during which England, under the twin shadows of the Bomb and its own sharp imperial decline, has altered more radically than it did in the silly twenties, the dreadful thirties, or in the certainly heroic but, in essence, static nineteen forties. Some of the changes in our social climate have been negative, frivolous and mean; but others have brought life and hope and what, since the nineteenth century, what was unknown in England—a realization that tradition, by which we set such store, must, to have meaning, be constantly re-made.

The remaking of tradition has long been Bragg's specialty: Blakean imagery, Kipling's poetry, proto-Left legends, traditional political balladry and inter-war politics have all made appearances on his earlier albums. That connection to the past is only amplified by the liner sleeve's quotation from George Orwell's 1941 essay "The Lion and the Unicorn":

Englishness is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

Having honed his flair for British history and cultural nostalgia, Bragg went on to do admirable service in the refashioning of American tradition. On 1998's Mermaid Avenue, Bragg, along with Midwestern alternative traditionalists Wilco, resurrected and made newly relevant the spirit of Woody Guthrie, a musical icon whose image had fossilised into that of a mere dustbowl balladeer. As Bragg's view returns homeward, the new album marks both a continuation and a new departure.

Bragg is far more directly political than MacInnes; however, both are joined by a malcontented engagement with English identity. As the narrator in MacInnes's 1959 novel Absolute Beginners notes, "It's because I'm a patriot, that I can't bear our country". In taking on patriotism, Bragg maps out a two-front war. First, he calls for the dismantling of Britishness, made irrelevant in his view by the end of empire and fragmented through devolution.Then, he confronts the resulting void with a new—and at the same time old—multicultural Englishness.
"Take Down the Union Jack" and "England, Half English" are the most explicitly "English"-themed tracks, but, in their different ways, other songs address the concept more obliquely. "Distant Shore", for instance, is in the voice of an asylum-seeker: "The natives are hostile whatever I say / The thing they fear most is that I might want to stay", it intones, inverting the imperial imagery of colony and metropole. "Baby Faroukh" mixes in African influences to its infectious guitar rhythms. "St. Monday" reaches back into the history of English working-class traditions to praise the unofficial "holiday" belonging to pre-industrial work patterns.

Trying to pin down what that Englishness actually is, of course, poses a problem. Listing certain institutions or character traits risks the sort of tourist-brochure cataloguing satirised in Julian Barnes's 1998 novel England, England. Orwell took a decent stab at it in his 1941 essay, but Both Bragg and MacInnes, in general, avoid making any specific lists. Instead, Bragg's songs seem to imply English multiculturalism either through their world-music tinged sounds or in lyrics pointing out the cultural mixing of neighbourhood, diet, tradition and language. In a February 2002 interview, he declared "I'm not interested in a narrow definition of warm beer and Benjamin Britten. It's about a shared space, and you can't pick and choose within that." MacInnes's essays are similarly vague on what Englishness really means, being content with apt generalizations. In "See You at Mabel's", a piece on English drinking clubs, he writes, "In England, the war between Cavaliers and Roundheads is eternal. All English institutions reflect the compromise between the saints and sinners, between the Salvation Army and the Music Hall views of life". A look at "Pop Songs and Teenagers" includes the pithy observation that "England is, and always has been, a country infested with people who love to tell us what to do, but who very rarely seem to know what's going on".

Clearly, MacInnes's writing could be crisp and direct, mixing a cutting humor with incisive cultural critique. (At one point, he observes, "when an educated English voice is turning bitchy, it's a quite specially unpleasant sound, besides being fucking silly, and an utter drag.") It could, however, be uneven, a pattern repeated in Absolute Beginners, the first of his "London novels" that continued with City of Spades and Mr. Love and Justice. Biting social commentary, painted in swift, sharp strokes, now and then break through the essentially contrived plot framework and pop culture detailing. The unnamed protagonist, a photographer and teenaged devotee of the hip scene, moves through a London milieu of mixed ethnicities, classes, drug preferences and sexual orientations. Adrift in a world of scooters and coffee bars, he strikes one as a stylish, proto-Mod Holden Caulfield. The story essentially sets up his wry observations on 50s culture, and various characters voice opinions that reappear, almost verbatim, in England, Half English. The books give the author plenty of opportunity to make observations on England and the English. For instance, a Jewish writer explains his notions to the narrator:

"I tell you a secret: England is dreadful, and the English—they're barbarians. But three things of theirs I cherish most sincerely—the lovely tongue they thought up God knows how and I try hard to write in, and the nosey instinct of their engineers, and seamen, and explorers and scientists, to enquire, to find out why, and their own radicals that bounce up every century to flay and slay them never mind the risk. So long as they have those things I'm glad to be with them, and will defend them…and everything else I can forget."

But what comes out most strongly in the book are two arguments: one, that youth culture was creating the potential for a classless and multicultural society, and, two, that England, in particular its capital, was the product of cross-cultural influences. When "Mr. Cool", a "coloured kid" and neighbour, speaks of growing tensions between whites and blacks, the narrator responds with disbelief:

"I couldn't take any more of this nightmare. I cried out, 'Cool, this is London, not some hick city in the provinces! This is London, man, a capital, a great big city where every kind of race has lived ever since the Romans'."

Nonetheless, things get worse, and the book vividly depicts the terrible, simmering eruption of racial violence, dramatising the 1958 Notting Hill riots. The book concludes with the narrator's departure in search of country with less of a "colour thing":

"Because, in this moment, I must tell you, I'd fallen right out of love with England. And even with London, which I'd loved like my mother, in a way. As far as I was concerned, the whole dam group of islands could sink under the sea, and all I wanted was shake my feet off of them, and take off somewhere and get naturalized, and settle."

Bragg's call for an engagement with Englishness, particularly on the part of the Left, is both timely and welcome. It is timely, because the external and internal pressures on Britishness (present from its birth) have only increased in recent decades. Although the decline of the nation-state can be exaggerated, the influence of multinational conglomerates, global economic treaties and European integration is unmistakeable. From within, devolution, though only partial, in combination with long-standing nationalist sentiments have weakened a British identity that, in any case, was never fully hegemonic in every corner of the four nations that have coexisted, not always amiably, on a small European archipelago.

Bragg's message is welcome because, in this context, English nationalism will unavoidably become more of an issue, and it is better that the Left influence that rise rather than allowing the Right (and most of all the Far Right) sole proprietorship of national self-image. The hesitancy to participate in the nationalist debate is fruitless: avoidance won't make it go away, and whatever the ambiguities and difficulties of defining Englishness, they pale in comparison to those of "internationalism".

Nonetheless, questions remain. Bragg's insistence that Great Britain is "just an economic union" is, at least in its origins, true. However, since 1707 "Britain" has accumulated a great weight of legal, cultural and social interconnections and historical meanings. These are difficult to dismiss and not all of them are necessarily bad, arguably no worse than those attaching to "England", which, in any case, always supplied the lion-and-unicorn's share of Britishness. Furthermore, the Welsh, Scots and Irish also to varying degrees contributed to aspects of Britishness—such as the Empire—that one is so tempted to forget. Quite apart from the fact that Britain's moves toward a more federalist constitution are something very different than the end of the Union, taking down the Union Jack can in no way wipe the slate clean.

Mention of the Empire brings up another, sad irony: the multicultural society that Bragg and MacInnes celebrate is in large measure a legacy of the Empire they both despise. This is not to suggest that the Empire had noble aims, for the creation of a multi-ethnic metropole was certainly never a goal of its architects and rulers. However, that connection complicates the easy distinctions between imperialist "Britain" and tolerant, multicultural "England". Although the subjects of Empire fought many conflicts against their colonial rulers, millions also fought two major twentieth century wars for them in the name not of England but of Britain. Such service was to strengthen moral claims for independence and for immigration rights. The Commonwealth, with all of its legal and cultural interconnections, has certainly helped to ensure that Britain's former colonies remain imprinted by British culture. At the same time, however, the remnants of imperialism opened the door to a counter-flow of people and influences that became most noticeable after 1945. This was the world that MacInnes explored, the multi-ethnic Britain in part signalled by the arrival of West Indian immigrants on the Empire Windrush in 1948. Britishness has been, however ambivalently, a model for immigrant efforts for integration and identity, and, moreover, it has provided a sometimes useful discourse in claiming equal rights.

MacInnes put much hope in two factors for creating a tolerant society: youth and commerce. The young people he presents are not interested in the distinctions of class, race or sexual preference; instead, they're digging—together—new records, clothes, films, food and lifestyles. That his confidence was misplaced is suggested by the decades that followed, pointing to the problems of market multiculturalism and to the fact that young people create their own inequalities, many of which mirror or even intensify those of the surrounding society. Bragg, as one might suspect, is more critical of commerce. He also has been more sceptical of the staying power of youth as a force for cultural change. However, he seems perhaps a bit overconfident that the fact of difference—pointing out that England has always been a mix of cultures—leads to the acceptance of difference. "Mixture", after all, implies more than simply sharing the same space. This is not only an issue of majority racism—though that remains a key problem—but also of minority self-isolation. Last summer's race riots—which bear a depressingly close similarity to the one dramatised forty years ago by MacInnes—point to the continuing alienation among white, black and Asian communities.

As the election fiasco in France, the still-small but noticeable success of far-right parties in on the Continent, and the attempted resurgence of the British National Party suggests, such problems are widespread. Multiculturalism is, simultaneously, Europe's opportunity and tinderbox. The emerging constellation of social tension and anti-immigrant politics suggests that celebrating diversity is not, on its own, enough to build a sense of social cohesion. A further step may be in the development of national identities that can coexist with trans-national loyalties, provide positive associations for people of all backgrounds and can frame both cultural agreement as well as disagreement. Ignoring the problem in the hopes of avoiding a painful social and cultural debate doesn't make it go away, and cedes votes—either through choice or apathy—to the purveyors of hate. The issue of national identity is, of course, only a part of the problem; however, whether "English" or "British", having a multicultural society—in the sense of cultures peacefully coexisting—is something different than simply having a society of many cultures.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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