Sunday, 15 April 2012

Real England by Paul Kingsnorth

The Battle Against the Band

Although written a few years ago now, and not strictly about Sussex, this book does follow another theme of mine, which is the preservation of our unique landscape.

The Real England pulls together a series of characters that are kicking out against the move towards a nation of identikit cities, streets and countryside. Contrary to what the media will have you believe they're not all unwashed hordes taking to trees and battling the police, the people we encounter here are striking because of their normality; their everyday-ness. The stand up to corporate giants like Tesco, and the faceless corporations that would have you believe your life is enhanced if you have a Starbucks on every corner, and two branches of Tesco in between.

There is a melancholy feel to the book, for as time as passed since it was written it is evident nothing has changed, other than the government, and that this drive, if anything, may have increased. The only check now is the economic downturn.

As I read the book, I started to wonder if the real battle wasn't against the move towards clone towns, but as much a battle against the blandness of people, who just accept that this is the way and are happy to spend their weekends queuing to park in huge out of town retail parks, or equally monolithic urban shopping centres; where the cost of parking is deliberately prohibitive to stop you straying too far from it's grasp.

The characters we meet  in Kingsnorth's well-researched, and evocatively written book are striving against being eaten up by this sort of development. It's a cry for a Britain we all cherish, but few are prepared to fight to save from this creeping ruin. It puts me in mind of the best of past writings in a similar vein; Akenfield and Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay; while Kingsnorth's book is more national, the subject is similarly sad; that we are leaving behind a lot of the character of England in order to line the purses of the corporate fat cats.

As the MP,  Jim Dowd puts it - ask people if they want to keep their local shop and they all agree, ask how many actually use it and the figures plummet. 

As a historian I know that change is to some degree inevitable, and is often for the good; Kingsnorth seemingly agrees with this; it's not the development and the growth that is the issue, it is the manner in which it is done. The way in which progress is sold as a good thing, even when those it affects disagree, but are not given a voice to protest.

The theme here is really that place is an important part of our identity. Without a sense of place those things that hold communities together are broken down. After this book was published there were several days of rioting across the UK, and it is no coincidence that Real England talks about the alienation of people who, if they are not "consumers" have their rights and needs reduced. The drive to sameness destroys that sense of place, whether it's from disinterested staff in coffee shops repeating the 'five steps to customer satisfaction' mantras (I've been in here hundreds of times, you've served me, I know the sugar is behind me...) or the identikit estates that homebuilders want us to come home to and shut the door on the world around us.

The conclusion does offer hope though, I just fear that the people who read these books are already converts, and that we need to change the habits of the bland masses; the sheep that stream into the great concrete cathedrals to consumerism to spend, spend, spend and to hell with the consequences. I wonder if the oil tanker has gone too far and it's too late to turn it round before it hits the wall, however hard we stamp on the brakes. That's my fear, that we've gone too far, ceded too much power, worried so much about 'growth' and profit that all the words in the world probably won't slay the consumerist dragon.

I really urge anyone who has an interest in such matters to buy the book, preferably from an independent bookseller rather than a global corporation with a shady tax-paying record; or maybe see if your library has a copy.

The blog of the book can be found here Real England Blog; and more about Paul can be found here and here.

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