Kieron Smith finds a worrying lack of reflexivity in Alex Niven’s New Model Island, a new appraisal of Englishness that keeps its misunderstandings of the Celtic nations firmly in the fringes
In the new order of the North Atlantic Archipelago – or whatever these islands will be called in the decades to come – when the historians are choosing chapter headings for their books about the 2010s, what will be the go-to phrase for sections on the December 2019 General Election? ‘For the many, not the few’? ‘For the few, not the many’? ‘Get Brexit Done’? ‘Oven-ready Brexit’? I wager it’ll be ‘let me be clear’. This was the dire yet universal patter that prefaced the soundbites and stump speeches of every candidate in the months leading up to that vote. ‘Let me be clear’ is, of course, pure doublespeak, a phrase calibrated to disguise the terrifying unknowability haunting all political and social life in these last days of the British consensus. That every one of us could see through such blatant mystification is, of course, irrelevant. ‘Let me be clear’ is a phrase plainly designed to postpone lucid statement, decision, or analysis, indefinitely.
In this context, Alex Niven’s New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England (Repeater, 2019) appears to offer an alternative. Rather than obfuscate via the bogus claim to lucidity, this book foregrounds the difficulty of finding clear-cut answers to questions of social and political identity. Indeed, his title alone contains at least two outrageous misnomers, and virtues are made of this throughout. In an appended ‘note on terminology’ , Niven disarmingly concedes that ‘the title of this book should really have been in the plural rather than the singular’, yet confesses that he thought it ‘sounded better without an “s” on the end’, and asks for forgiveness for this and ‘other verbal smudges’. The strange allure of this book thus lies in the way it appears to perform the inverse gesture of the pre-Brexit politician, veiling a remarkably functionalist blueprint for a post-Brexit Britain – an attempt to ‘envisage a wholly new architecture for the islands’, no less – in the language of a kind of post-structuralist-liberal-humanist-impressionism.
Without this conceptual smudginess, this smearing of the analytical lens, New Model Island would be forced to look directly at its object – that is, clearly, the problem of national identity in twenty-first century England – and this is something that its author simply will not countenance. Nations, for Niven, are intrinsically outmoded, retrograde forms of social, political and cultural organisation: ‘narrow’, ‘isolationis[t]’, ‘anachronistic’, its British variants mere ‘hallucinated national Camelots’. English national identity, to the extent that it does exist, belongs to ‘working-class subjects’, not progressive intellectuals. To support this view, the book paints a picture of an emptily functionalist Englishness, a discursive construct built as a kind of ideological scaffolding to support the nation’s imperial exploits. The end of empire spelled the internal collapse of this flimsy structure which, in the intervening years, was ‘meticulously de-essentialised and distorted’ before more recently being repainted in the garish hues of neoliberal capitalist simulacra. The result is that, today, ‘in a very real as well as an affective sense, England is sheer geopolitical void. Put yet more boldly: England doesn’t exist’.
There is undoubtedly some truth to this. As Niven here and elsewhere cogently argues, Tory-Anglo-Britishness is about as egregious an identity and set of sensibilities as it is possible to possess in the Western world. However, using this as the bathwater to chuck out every other aspect of the national experience, the book jettisons a real opportunity to examine honestly the lived contradictions and complex structures of feeling of English subjectivity. This move is itself something of a contradiction, as in places New Model Island is an earnest, sophisticated evocation of these matters. Longer chapters are interspersed with lyrical digressions, and though these occasionally border on a cloying chumminess (‘I got to know Mark…’, ‘Joe and I met at the start of 2012…’, ‘as Robin and I walked through the empty, light-filled lanes of the Dorset countryside…’), there are moving passages that finely articulate the acute stresses of geographical mobility and dislocation, the importance of friendship, and the forms of creativity and political consciousness that can only come from felt, lived experience in particular places. Yet the melancholic tone pervading the book downplays the real power and privilege of living and working as a creative person in one of the richest and most powerful nation states on the planet, with access to its elite universities, its cultural networks, its publishing, press, and readerships. Indeed, large portions of the book are given over to not-so-humblebrags about being a member of ‘the only really cogent literary avant-garde to have emerged on the islands since the millennium’. Such proud declarations of cultural vitality make the book’s central thesis of English spiritual emptiness ring somewhat hollow.
This would almost be forgivable were it not for the curious expansionism that characterises Niven’s vision of an alternative or post-Englishness: a smudgy ‘islandness’ that is remarkably close to a form of cultural Britishness in the way it impressionistically assimilates England’s national others. This is abundantly exemplified in one of the book’s ‘lyric island’ digressions. Following a chapter that eviscerates the chronic hollowness and ‘confinement’ of ‘the English void’, Niven neatly segues into a subchapter on, of all people, Dylan Thomas. Despite this poet being from – last time I checked – Swansea, and writing the bulk of his work in – yes – south and west Wales, Niven confidently enumerates the ways in which Thomas bespeaks ‘the negative deadness of England and Englishness’. This is a preposterously claustrophobic reading of Thomas, of whom I once thought that even the most cursory reading would reveal a poetry that defies generic, formal, and lyrical boundaries. Of the vast body of critical work on Thomas over the years – which ranges from crudely moralistic interpretations of his drinking habits to complex psychoanalytical readings of his use of language and form – one of the few things that critics do tend to agree upon is his innate excess. Yet Niven, with a sort of blithe imperiousness, totally overlooks this extensive critical legacy, and instead constructs a small, airless box in which to bury Thomas. ‘Fern Hill’ is allegedly an expression of the ‘inevitable and banal realisation of a bleary-eyed middle-aged alcoholic’ (p. 46) (Dylan Thomas wrote ‘Fern Hill’ when he was thirty.) It is a work that articulates a ‘deeply embedded feeling of entrapment and enclosure’ (p. 47). It ‘proclaims its oldness, its limitedness [Niven’s italics] at every turn’. ‘Mining […] folk cliché’ (p. 47), it is ‘route-one nostalgia’ (p. 46.) Where the poem is acknowledged to be a product of Thomas hailing from a particular time and place, this is treated in internal colonial terms as part of a ‘peripheral sub-tradition’, classically ‘British’ in its being unable to resist being ‘dragged back into the past and its ancient strictures’ (p. 48). Despite the radical ambivalence of its final lines, Niven informs us with the portentousness of a prison warden that the poem is proof that ‘no one born on these islands can escape the feeling of subjugation and historical limit that penetrates into every aspect of our cultural being.’ (p. 49)
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To be fair, I’m struggling to escape the sense of the Arnoldian levels of cultural overlordliness on display here. As Daniel G. Williams has argued, Matthew Arnold, for all his talk of ‘sweetness and light’, was at heart a deliberating political thinker who fully understood the blunt administrative power of culture. In his lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature, Arnold expounded a profoundly instrumentalist approach to culture, positing it as a tool of national cohesion in the service of the true rulers of ‘Britain’: the English. His solution to emergent national antagonisms – ‘a moment when the ice is breaking up in England, and we are all beginning at last to see how much real confusion and insufficiency it covered’ (sound familiar?) – was to blend together a sense of the best of Britain’s ‘races’: to infuse the ‘steady-going’ and ‘phlegmatic’ yet occasionally staid and overbearing English with a dash of the Celtic ‘genius’: a temperament defined by a safe poetic vitality and sentimentality, destined to sing and dance but not to rule.
Niven, of course, does not evoke the language of race. But echoes of Arnold’s thinking unfortunately haunt this book. Post-structuralist readings of England’s ‘de-essentialised’ spiritual emptiness are contrasted with lyrical digressions that find sustenance in the wholesome fruits of Celtic culture. Despite Dylan Thomas’s sense of English ‘confinement’, he is for Niven a poet whose ‘melodic cadences’ were ‘determined by the ingrained musicality of Welsh culture’. Elsewhere Niven lauds the ‘pan-islands’ Britpop tendency, which, he reminds us, brought together ‘Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the Manchester-Irish Gallagher brothers (who emerged from the rather Scottish-oriented Creation Records stable), and Welsh hedonists Howard Marks, Rhys Ifans and Cerys Matthews’. He recalls his teenage obsession with Mogwai and Super Furry Animals, Scottish and Welsh bands to whom, in curiously sentimental terms, he ‘gave [his] whole self without reservation’, as well as a night in his twenties he spent watching Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, ‘the funniest, strangest, most life-affirming thing we’d ever seen’. On his tour of English cultural lassitude, Niven does not pause to consider the fact that each of these other nations has its own internal differences – not to mention languages – as well as its own complex relationship with itself and its others. Perhaps most telling is his assessment that the British ‘periphery’ developed ‘reductive nationalisms as a sort of oppositional defence mechanism’. England is consistently placed at the centre of the story and afforded a history to which its national others are mere homogenised, reactive appendages.
Let me be clear: nations and national identities are confusing, conditional, and often downright contradictory social constructs. They certainly can be reactionary and exclusionary. Anglo-Britishness is a formation that has ensured, among other things, the predominance of Conservative governments in Britain over the past hundred years (as well as the next four) despite three of its nations voting emphatically otherwise. With this in mind, there is plenty to agree with in this book. Niven is right to call attention to the ‘deep structural inequalities that arise from the London-centric design of the islands’, and it is clear that British society is ‘rotten at its roots, and simply can’t continue in its present form’. In this sense, New Model Island can be read as a timely and welcome sign that some on the English left are beginning to look more seriously at the issue of national identity and experience, and their profound impact on the social and political realities of these islands. This is an urgent necessity at a time when these matters are being vigorously co-opted by dangerous charlatans on the alt- and far-right.
However, the constant impressionistic blurring of Britain and England, the mistaken equation of English regionalism with Celtic nationalism, the Arnoldian assumptions about the homogeneity and cultural vitality of the Celtic nations, and the ludicrously disingenuous claim that ‘England no longer exists’, all suggest a worrying lack of reflexivity. As Michael Billig argued back in the mid-1990s, England has historically had the privilege not to worry about its own national identity because it has been too busy enjoying its own dominant, ‘banal’ universalism, haughtily defining nations and nationalism as passé, as something that happens ‘over there’, while shoving its culture, its language, its customs and assumptions down others’ throats. It is for this reason that many Scottish and Welsh nationalists may bark a mirthless laugh at Niven’s reproach that their campaigns can ‘be guilty of an inward focus that neglects to consider what might happen to England without them’.
Other national formations are possible. Speaking from an ‘inwardly-focused’ Wales, the cultural and political institutions and tendencies built here in the decades leading up to and after devolution were hard won. They are still in process, and are struggling to manage and make sense of complex tensions and contradictions. At present, they have their problems. Devolution could still provide the basis for a radical redefinition of Wales’s relationship with England, but this must come from within, responding to its own needs, and on its own terms. The ‘post-national’ left would do well to think more lucidly about their own situation, their own banal power, rather than smudging Ireland, Scotland and Wales into an emptily rhetorical islandness out of England’s palette.
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