Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 07:46

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity

Published in Cultural Commentary

With the current chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit, Stuart Cartland critiques 'heritage culture' and argues that the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind the expression of a more radical, egalitarian national cultural identity.

The recent release of British nostalgia flick The Book Shop is the latest in a long line of relentless, seemingly endless cultural representations of a backward looking gaze into a mythical sense of nation and place. What we have witnessed over recent years is a nostalgia blitz (pun fully intended), a prevalence and immense popularity of television series and films set within this largely rural and historical traditional utopia. These cultural texts provide a medium through which a crisis of identity based upon the challenges of the present are mediated. In many ways this can be viewed as national escapism on one hand and a form of cultural legitimation on the other.

When the future (or even the present) is uncertain and unclear it can be very comforting to escape into a sense of constructed familiarity. The past is often a place that we create or is created for us, free from the chaos and uncertainty of the real lived experience, one that is also in many ways an ideological creation, one where we airbrush out the inconvenient or unpleasing elements, and create a type of social and cultural utopia far from any sense of reality. Such fantasy fiction set within historical periods play upon, and legitimise, created concepts of the past which in turn inform our understanding of the present, one where nostalgia and sentimentality inform a collective national imagining.

However such an exercise, particularly for the English in a post-Brexit reality, is arguably built upon repetition and melancholy, a longing for a lost age of national exceptionalism, independence and greatness. As pointed out by Mark Easton in a recent BBC/YouGov poll, “there is more than a hint of nostalgia about people’s sense of Englishness. Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future”. Therefore it can be no surprise to witness this expressed in popular television series and movies in recent years. Period dramas are a national industry in the UK, yet we have witnessed a tidal wave of cultural nostalgia set within a context of political chaos, economic uncertainty and the crushing reality of austerity fraying the very fabric of British society.

The unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Call the Midwife, the Crown, Victoria and Poldark are all set in a (largely pre-industrial) bucolic space populated by virtuous citizens, where the working class and women knew their place, and the power and position of the status quo is unquestioned. This can be viewed as a propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, gay marriage, health and safety regulations, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.

The construction and use of nostalgia is nothing new, yet the current national situation of a perennial state of anxiety and crisis arguably perpetuates an obsessive gaze back, even to past times of national crisis. Crisis can then be seen as a tool of defensive representation, exceptionalism, and a wilful delve into ideologically constructed notions of the past and perceived ‘golden eras’. The good-old-days and the blitz-spirit is intertwined with Brexit anxiety, and helps perpetuate a surge among the English (in particular) of a sense of defensive and backward looking Englishness and a wave of popular nostalgia. It is a distinctively top-down, traditional and conservative interpretation of history that utilises the use of Churchillian rhetoric and a triumphant and uncritical interpretation of history that has become a dominant conservative narrative of contemporary renewal within a context of disengagement.

One only needs to look at the most popular British films over recent years to see this also played out in the cinema - Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are all based upon this recurring theme. whilst other popular British movies continue the more general clamour for nostalgia and sentimentality such as Another Mother's Son, Murder on the Orient Express and Phantom Thread. There is nothing inherently conservative about these historical periods, however they have been stripped of any radical possibilities and have been re-situated within a longing for a national space set with the past.

This historicised national narrative built upon reconstituted social consensus certainly helped legitimise and justify many to vote ‘leave’ - the Leave campaign was built upon nostalgic pastiche and myth - but also in terms of anxiety of how we cope when we leave. The dominant narrative being that we are in fact the factual evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ adrift in the north Atlantic, supremely detached from European politics and problems. These sentiments have always conjured strong mythical images of splendid isolation, that we are a breed apart from those meddling Europeans, that we are not or have never really been European, that we are certainly separate, distinct and of course superior. Again, the symbolic re-purposing of a nation alone, choosing its own destiny yet couched within a language of austerity and images of war fetishism, feed into the symbolic imagery of a national space.

These narratives of crisis and longing for images of a green and pleasant rustic past are not just located on the small or big screen. The recycling of cultural and historical sites, figures, language and myth which have produced such a depth of cultural pastiche and revivalism have been symbolically repackaged within our everyday lives, a process which Owen Hatherley describes as ‘heritage culture’. Imagery of artisan, handcrafted, bespoke, boutique, rustic and vintage have become culturally homogenous as the cozy appeal of the safety blanket of nostalgia and an imaginary social and cultural utopia is spread over us within an over-riding sense of benevolent manufactured nostalgia through the prism of social and cultural conserv-atism. 

The contested meaning of being English in an increasingly globalised world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, EU integration and large scale immigration is clearly problematic but also rich with radical opportunity. However, the England sold to the world (and more importantly to itself) through a cultural obsession with tradition and nostalgia is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels, the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust, Waitrose and farmers' markets. TV banality such as Midsomer Murders, the Great British Bake Off and Location, Location, Location. While movies such as the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, the Queen et al represent an ever present, and social aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within ideologically triumphant historical ‘golden eras’.

Examples such as these point toward a politically and culturally specific construction of nation and heritage, laden with cultural meaning and identity that purposely exclude those who do not fit the traditionalist images or values of the nation. It is a predominantly mythical representation that has no relevance to the majority of the population and one that most could never experience - yet it represents a well-established national, cultural and historical narrative, cleansed of social and cultural relevance. “The danger”, as Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out when discussing his novel Remains of the Day, “lies not only in the fact that politicians would sell this image to their electorate but also that the electorate might buy it”.

However, it is a cultural construction rich with radical possibilities, one which hopefully Mike Leigh’s forthcoming movie on the Peterloo massacre can help redress. Indeed, dominant, hegemonic cultural constructions have been challenged over recent years. Mike Leigh’s Spirit of ’45 being the most obvious example on the big screen, but also on the small screen examples such as Michael Sheen’s retelling of the 1839 Newport Chartist uprising in Valley Rebellion all point to radical alternatives.

Again, there is nothing inherent or or natural to support the claim that historical or rural representations need to be conservative. Indeed, there is a wealth of rich examples that can be utilised to represent and support a more radical and left leaning cultural identity, be it the Levellers or Diggers from the 1640s through to the campaign for the right to roam culminating in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s.

With the current and ongoing chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind a national cultural identity based upon England’s rich cultural heritage of egalitarianism and radicalism and offer a way beyond the anxiety, conflict and crisis which the current Conservative-dominated narrative behind Brexit represents.

Endless shit stain (perpetual motion)
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 07:46

At service or brexit

Published in Poetry

At Service or Brexit

by Alan Dunnett

In the timings is some dislocation.
All the cogs seem oiled. You pull and again
at the lever. Each day, it is harder,

sweating underground while the batteries
get low. Each day, the end-count is smaller.
There is a dull continuing. Hands reach

through the cage for bread at agreed hours.
On more occasions, the system is sunk
until the complainers are proved correct

but there is no exodus into light
and there is no contingency plan. Stuck
in a diminishing with bones turning

yellow, you pull at the lever, all pull
but nothing works. Silence starts, then is still. 

Alix Emery, the artist who provided the brilliant accompanying image, lives and works in London. She has had work exhibited at Tate St Ives, Birmingham Hippodrome, The Truman Brewery, Tenderbooks, The House of Blah Blah, and PS Mirabel. She is in her final year, studying BA Fine Art, at Central Saint Martins.

Outdoor Ghost Lab at the Utopia Festival, Somerset House, London, 2016
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 07:46

Social haunting in the Brexit coalfields

Published in Education

Dr Geoff Bright introduces a fascinating arts-based educational project, concerned with remembering, re-imagining and re-enacting alternative community futures in the abandoned, de-industrialised pit communities in the North of England.

Over this last three years I’ve enjoyed bringing together a team of academics, artists, community trade unionists and activists in what is effectively a kind of community ghost hunt! We are now beginning the third of three related Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects that have steadily refined a unique arts-based approach to researching what we’re calling the ‘social haunting’ of deindustrialised communities. The current project Song Lines: Creating Living Knowledge through Working with Social Haunting builds on two earlier AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ investigations: Working with a Social Haunting, which worked in the South Yorkshire coalfield and Rochdale area in Lancashire during 2015; and Opening the ‘Unclosed Space’, which hunted social ghosts in the North Staffordshire coalfield and was showcased at the Utopia Festival at Somerset House, London, on the very first weekend after the Brexit vote.

Basically, all three of these projects grew out of research work that I did after a good proportion of a working lifetime spent in the UK coalfields of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire: growing up in a pit family, as a railway trade union activist who was heavly involved in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and, from the 90s on, as someone who worked as a community activist/educator in that area. My doctoral study – which focussed on pit village youngsters who were being excluded from school and was completed in 2013 – suggested that the 84-85 strike and its aftermath were far from being matters of merely historical interest but remained, rather, a continuing – if, more often than not, unspoken – context for the lived, cultural experience of people, young and old.

Fieldwork that I did revealed a complex, intergenerational transmission process - a “kind of haunting” - as some of my research participants called it - whereby a web of feelings relating to the conflicted culture of the coalfields continued to shape cultural identity in a form of knowing without knowing that is more than mere tacit knowledge, habitus, or embodied collective memory and that persists even though the material impetus for those feelings has, to all intents and purposes, disappeared.

More than a decade after that research commenced, the situation is essentially the same. Occult affective intensities still speak through the absent present of the coal industry in multiple ways. To name but a few routes: there are redundant architectures of extraction - the run-down villages that have no reason, now, for being where they are. There are invented landscapes of what we might call regenerative erasure - the faux rural of pit tips made into ‘country parks’. There are inscriptions on, and inside, bodies, named as ‘white’ finger or ‘black’ lung, a residual chiascuro of industrial injury and disability. And there are gendered affective practices of repetition and reversal, where the men still work remembered coal seams in half-empty Welfare clubs, while the women staff the new precariat.

In a nutshell, the strike is now over thirty years past, the coal industry gone, and coal has been firmly re-positioned as the bete noir of the Anthropocene, rather than the celebrated ‘black diamond” of industrialisation that it once was. Nevertheless, the conflicted and ‘sticky’ affects generated by coal’s conflicted past have far from disappeared. The spontaneous “Thatcher funerals’ that celebrated the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher in 2012 were perhaps the most striking and visible examples of these latent forces, but the widespread Brexit vote across the coalfields is probably their most complex and far reaching manifestation.

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A social haunting

Following Avery Gordon’s remarkable insights in her 1997 book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, we’ve used the idea of a ‘social haunting’ to think about these phenomena and have tried to put into practice a mode of research capable of getting in touch with social ghosts. How have we approached that? Well, working with a social haunting is about working with the hidden, so we thought, first, about how we might look beyond the ‘blind field’ (as Avery calls it) of the conventional social research disciplines. Secondly, a haunting indicates a troubled social field. It is a communal socio-political-psychological state that “…registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present” and is evident at that moment when “disturbed feelings cannot be put away”.

So we knew that we would be working with trouble as well. A participatory arts-based inquiry delivered with high regard to the best of adult community education practice, but playfully, seemed to offer the best approach. However, and this is key to our work, we also wanted to respond to something else that Avery Gordon had particularly emphasised: the fact that a social haunting carries a political imperative. It is always an indication that “something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done”. Hence, we devised our Ghost Lab approach.

Song lines

The Ghost Labs – essentially a semi-improvised, art/activist “event-space” (in cultural philosopher Brian Massumi’s words) – create a space in which to re-imagine how difficult affective meanings carried into the present from contested pasts might, rather than narrowing the scope of imaginable futures, actually be harnessed as energies for benevolent change. The Ghost Labs’ success thus far has been rooted in their capacity to allow participants to reflect on subjugated community histories using collective poetry, playback theatre, and comic strip, for example, as modes of re-imagining and enacting alternative community futures in a way that is enjoyable and remarkably peaceable, even when those communities have suffered divisive traumatic change.

As one of our participants from our first project said: "We had a laugh, did something different, got to know each other and ourselves a bit better...It felt good to try to express myself through unusual means - for me - like poetry or even drawing. Doing it together created a powerful and lasting feeling...".

Working again with our key community partners Unite Community; the Co-op College, the Song Lines project will use the newest tool from the Ghost Lab’s repertoire of arts-based ‘ghost hunting’ tools: the ‘Community Tarot’. The Community Tarot is just one of the repertoire of arts based methods that the Labs employ. It is designed around individual readings, divided into past, present and future, using a pack of cards produced from images and words collected from our partner communities. So it offers a simple, playful, but richly productive device with which to bring to light contradictory and troubling aspects of what academic social psychologist Valerie Walkerdine has called “communal being-ness”.

As individual readings are collected together as community readings, a kind of living cultural lexicon of community imagination begins to assemble itself, and hidden themes becoming increasingly clear and available for reflection and renewed action.

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The new project aims specifically to address feelings around Brexit and will see the Community Tarot technique rolled out in five new communities: three in the NE of England – Sunderland, Seaham, and Horden on the Durham coalfield – and two in the NW – Rochdale and Hyde, Tameside. The creative materials generated through those Community Tarot readings will stimulate the creation of a set of contemporary ‘video ballads’ that ally with local traditions of dissenting song and will be specially written and recorded by our partner folk musicians, Ribbon Road. The video ballads will be used to initiate “song lines” of living knowledge outwards from, and back into, the originating communities as they circulate through a series of interactive public engagement and dissemination channels that will reach new audiences in marginalised and de-industrialised communities in the UK, the Basque Country, Slovenia, US, Hungary, Haiti and Malawi through the channel of community radio.

The culmination of our project will be a practitioner and policy maker conference - and not-to-be-missed live performance by Ribbon Road - at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, on November 8th, 2107. We’ll also be at the Unite Community stall at the Durham Miners’ Gala and Great Yorkshire Show and at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival during summer 2017. Listen out for the beautiful voice of Ribbon Road’s, Brenda Heslop! Get a taste of it here: Ribbon Road. Try listening to Daddy for You, Eddie’s Tattoo Studio, or The Numbered Streets and you’ll see what our work is getting at.

 

After the Big Vote
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 07:46

After the Big Vote

Published in Poetry

After The Big Vote
Intellectual Begins To Decompose

by Kevin Higgins

You sit minding that cup
as if it contained, post-Brexit,
the last frothy coffee in all of Brighton.
You’ve the look of
a pretend Elvis Costello,
or the rejected fourth member
of Bananarama.

Your claim to notoriety
that one of the Sex Pistols
once failed to cross the road
to avoid you. Your opinions
what it said in all
yesterday’s editorials.

Your new secret hate
the ghastly Adidas tracksuits of Gateshead,
the sweatpants of Merthyr Tydfil,
for daring to go against your wishes.

Your sneer is a threatened Doberman
with the charming personality removed.
Scientists are currently trying
to bottle your lime-green bile
and make it available on the NHS
as a homeopathic remedy for psychotic
former Guardian columnists.

Your words are the gusts that come out
immediately before
a terrible bowel movement.

Even in the face of bitten
finger nails, the broken hinge
on the upstairs window, and my own
sack load of mistakes,

to be you would be
a fate worse than life.

Kevin Higgins is still under 'administrative suspension' from the Labour Party for writing satirical poems like this. He has also suffered the cruel and unusual punishment of being removed from the Labour International closed Facebook group.

The White Queen claimed to belive six impossible things before breakfast
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 07:46

Stabberjocky

Published in Poetry

Stabberjocky

by Steve Pottinger
(with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

‘Twas Brexit, and the slithy Gove
did frottercrutch in dwarfish glee;
he snicker-snacked the Camerove,
Machiavelliadastardly.

Beware the stabberjock, my son!
The empty eyes, the robo-glint!
who fellobrates the Murdocrone
the Ruperturtle übergimp!

He pallerised the BoJo cloon
they chummed upon their sunderbus
emblazoned it with fibberoons
and bambulluntruthoozled us.

The tousled toddler slaughterchopped,
his destiplans an Eton mess,
the slubbergubby gollumgove
a shadowhand of viciousness.

O gipperchund! And vomberblast!
The skitterchit of slick and sly
the snicker-snack of backstablades
the scrabblage to ruthlerise.

The bubberchut of charismissed
the turdletruck of banalbore
is patterfrondled on the head
a pawn upon a checkerboard.

Beware the stabberjock, my son!
The empty eyes, the robo-glint!
who fellobrates the Murdocrone
the Ruperturtle übergimp.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018 07:46

Signs

Published in Poetry

Signs

by Peter Branson

Poems everywhere - no time to shape them all,
not birds and bees, dark stuff, more sinewy
than sunlight through high trees - of cities; there,
on dire estates, lined up like coffin boards,
abandoned dominoes, shop fronts expire
in rows. To make life bearable, food, drugs,
hard booze, most seize the day, back-burner, ‘Ye
are many – they …’ still simmering away.
I search bright eyes, young Jack-the-lads, the girls
(my time) beehives, coins dropped, like-minds aboard
entitlement express ; unstoppable,
alive, where whippet men, their wives with head-
scarf rollered hair, ignore the bollocks They
contrive, conceal tab ends behind clenched fists.

Exit
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 07:46

Exit

Published in Poetry

Exit

by Kevin Higgins

for Darrell Kavanagh in his hour of need

There will be no more thunderstorms
sent across the Channel by the French,
no acid rain floating in from Belgium.
Pizza Hut will offer a choice of
Yorkshire Pudding or Yorkshire Pudding.

You’ll spend the next twenty seven bank holidays
dismantling everything you ever bought from IKEA.
The electric shower your plumber,
Pavel, put in last week will be taken out
and you’ll be given the number of a bloke
who’s pure Billericay. Those used to caviar
will have jellied eels forced
down their magnificent throats.
Every fish and chip shop
on the Costa del Sol will in time
be relocated to Ramsgate or Carlisle.

All paving stones laid by the Irish
will be torn up to make work
for blokes who’ve been on the sick
since nineteen seventy six.
Those alleged to be involved in secretly
making spaghetti bolognaise
will be arrested and held
in a detention centre near Dover. Sausage dogs
will be put in rubber dinghies
and pointed in the general direction
of the Fatherland. Neatly sliced
French sticks topped with Pâté
will make way for fried bread
lathered with Marmite.

There’ll be no more of those new
names for coffee your gran
can’t pronounce. The entire royal family
will be shipped back to Bavaria, with the exception
of the Duke of Edinburgh who’ll be given
a one way ticket to Athens. Curry
will no longer by compulsory
after every twelfth pint of Stella,
which itself will only be available
by special permission of the Foreign Office.

We’ll give India back its tea, sit around increasingly
bellicose campfires in our rusting iron helmets,
our tankards overflowing with traditional Norse mead.

NOTE this poem was written ten days before the referendum. It looks forward to the miniscule England of which Nigel Farage’s damper dreams are made, except for the bit about sending Lizzie back to Deutschland and putting Philip on the next flight to Athens.