Dreams and Fantasies of Place

David Matless, About England

Reaktion Books, 360pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781789146912

reviewed by Archie Cornish

Around the turn of the Millennium the English — some of them — started thinking anew about their national identity, and how to disentangle it from Britishness. A catalyst, looking back, is often supposed to be the England men’s football team’s charge to the semi-finals of Euro 1996. The years since have seen a stream of enquiries into Englishness across a range of fields, from sociology to the history of pop music. After Brexit, the discussion has narrowed to politics, with several studies focusing on the relationship between English national identity and the Leave vote. There has been much proclaiming to the effect that Englishness needs to be taken into account, but little progress on determining what it is. ‘Everyone has a different idea of what it actually means to be English’, said Gareth Southgate in his letter to England fans during the Euros in 2021. Carefully outlining a wholesome version of national pride, Southgate implied that what counts is less the nation than the manner of being proud.

In About England, David Matless differs. This book concentrates not on English patriotism, but on England itself; it is concerned more directly with England’s vernacular culture than with its politics. Matless, Professor of Cultural Geography at Nottingham, suggests that ‘assumptions still prevalent concerning Englishness, place and landscape were significantly shaped in the 1960s and 1970s’. In this respect he updates his seminal Landscape and Englishness (1998), which argued — against prevailing wisdom — for the modernity of an English landscape too often assumed to exist in an ancient, or pastorally timeless, realm beyond the political. England’s idylls, Matless countered, are the work of ‘planner-preservationists’, modernising figures of interwar administrations looking forward to a harmonious and orderly country. About England identifies the equivalent forces of the postwar decades whose political, architectural and cultural work constructed, in a Foucauldian sense, a mutual entwining of landscape and character.

This approach holds great contemporary value, as well as original distinctiveness. Too much writing on Englishness assumes, uncritically, that its reactionary parts are inherent and irredeemable, lying beyond the reach of historical contingency. In a related way, the complex task of puzzling out the interweaving of Englishness and Britishness is hampered by the assumption that Britishness is always the more promising or at least workable of the two identities.

Postwar pastoral, Matless shows, is just as historically inflected as the idylls of the planner-preservationists — despite Enoch Powell’s appeal, in his attempt to convert post-imperial melancholy into English nationalism, to a ‘mother country’ whose character remained ‘unaltered through it all’. The earthy naturalism that cuts through Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield (1969) reflects a sense of the English, having expended the empire they dominated on winning the war, needing to acquaint themselves with the reality of their domestic interior. Tracing the development of this grittiness into a late 20th-century mode of ‘pastoral critique’, Matless pushes back against the stereotyped view of pastoral as a smoothing over of difference and detail. For the New Left, English nationhood merely amplifies that pastoral smoothing to conceal class divides and create false consciousness. Yet, as Matless demonstrates, a streak of Englishness runs through many recent expressions of radicalism: in works of art PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake (2011), but also grassroots political movements such as the ‘anti-nuclear mobilisation of Englishness’ by the CND, or the ‘Third Battle of Newbury’ formed in 1994 in protest against a new bypass. This story continues, in recent years, with Extinction Rebellion; English environmentalism will be the focus of this book’s forthcoming sequel, England’s Green.

Matless sketches these socio-political narratives of Englishness so as to let them shadow his study of several characteristic locations: the English suburb and the planned new modern town; the pub, plotland and model village; heritage sites both ancient and recent, Arcadian and industrial. His analysis is expert but effortless, drawing on a life’s work of knowledge worn with self-effacing lightness. Details, fascinating and often comic, abound: in 1977 the Campaign for Real Ale collaborated on an EP, In CAMRA, with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra; the sleeve notes declare that ‘the link between jazz and real ale is a very strong one’. John Betjeman, campaigning against perceived threats to vernacular architecture, made a film about Bath in 1962 featuring his own impression — with Cockney accent — of a greedy ‘London-based developer’. Matless draws as much from pop culture as from academic geography and its source material, and this fluency greatly enriches the book (though the novel, which until at least the 1980s enjoyed a popularity qualifying it for pop cultural status, appears less than it might). The analysis of long-running TV shows like Last of the Summer Wine and Midsummer Murders is a model for how to trace social preoccupations through cultural products while avoiding the effacement of those products’ own forms and genealogies.

English places are built on cultural myths, collective hopes and fears; they make those myths in turn. A few patterns, mostly paradoxical, emerge: of a people convinced that their national identity lies in the ancient past, even as they cheerfully and relentlessly go about being modern; of a European country, small but varied, beginning to emerge from a maritime empire and its storied institutions, but finding itself more in what is particular and eccentric than what is shared. Matless is reluctant to push these generalisations too far, however, and in this respect his method demonstrates that English particularism, the fondness for detail and distrust of abstraction. About England tends towards an anatomy, or a survey — like those of the great early modern antiquarians, but switching the focus from the places themselves to dreams and fantasies of place. The neutrality of survey proves useful for tempering distinctions: Martin Wiener’s bifurcation of England into a pragmatic, industrial north and a romantic, pastoral south softens to ‘historical tensions between the entrepreneurial and the landed’. Sometimes Matless could afford to show his hand a little more, as in his study of the rise of the heritage industry in the 1980s. Robert Hewison blasted it as inauthentic reaction, but Matless provides many examples of how heritage could be ‘a field of imagination and progress’; he has a slightly dainty reluctance to expose crudeness or inaccuracy explicitly.

This is a more personal book than Landscape and Englishness, taking in not just the geography of a nation in postwar modernity but also a life lived there. There are some lovely glancing memories — of ‘eight-year-old sadness’ at Norwich’s loss to Spurs in the 1973 League Cup final — and anecdotes: of a school trip to the safari park at Longleat, and a holiday to the Skegness branch of Butlin’s, with its glamorous new monorail. They focus and personalise diffused themes of the domestication of empire, and the English conversion of former excitement to banality. Matless’s personal approach, and his fluency in reading culture, produces a New Critical style of an assured, quietly playful kind, delighting in linguistic felicities. England’s position ‘off’ the continent explains English voters ‘going off’ the EU; reflecting on the 1980s fetish of Brideshead Revisited and its aesthetic, Matless remembers aristocratic ‘stories of family function and dysfunction’. His sense of landscape as a cultural artefact, a text authored by a society, is balanced by an adeptness in reading particular works and moments

This is cultural geography at its best, demonstrating the mutual implication of places and their representations. Geography might have much more to tell us about Englishness than history, especially history that follows the thin threads of party politics. Michael Kenny has argued forcefully that the late 20th and early 21st centuries saw a huge, grassroots revival of interest in English culture, across a range of art forms and practices. Yet this revival has escaped the notice of the political class and its analysts, who in England are rarely sure about what to do with culture. Matless’s book shows up the poverty of existing attempts to enlist culture to tell political stories of Englishness, and reinforces the idea that — despite much centrist carolling — there is no coherent ‘English nationalism’, dangerously insurgent or otherwise.

Keir Starmer’s Labour seems content to appeal to national sentiment mainly in its guise as an anodyne, faintly socially conservative communitarian feeling. But the nation he invokes is still more often Britain than England. Labour might well be able to achieve power without a reframing of Englishness, however interesting or useful that reframing might be. Matless, correspondingly, demonstrates the great usefulness of looking for England and its culture not in its political history, but in its constant geography: the stories its places tell not once every few years, incoherently at the ballot box, but every day in its vernacular life.

Archie Cornish is Research Associate in English at the University of Sheffield, and is currently working on a book about dwelling places in literature. He also writes fiction.