“Patriotism is not enough”: Depictions of Englishness in Late 20th Century Fiction and ‘Cool Britannia’ Rhetoric

Introduction

 

In 2002, English novelist Hilary Mantel opined that “The English sense of identity is beginning to fracture” (104). Following a turbulent century in which the British Empire disintegrated, widespread immigration to the UK saw a newly multicultural society rocked by racial tensions, and the British Parliament devolved powers to independent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish regional parliaments, a drastic shift in perceptions of national identity was inevitable. Critics, as a result, have widely agreed with Mantel.

Despite this alleged fragmentation, a cultural movement espousing a nationalist agenda emerged during the 1990s. Referred to as ‘Cool Britannia’ in the press from 1996 onwards, it celebrated homegrown successes in the arts. Several of the scenes under the ‘Cool Britannia’ banner accrued distinct genre tags prefixed with ‘Brit-’ to highlight their nationality; ‘Britpop’, the rock music scene of the time, and ‘Britart’, work by the period’s clique of artists that rose to prominence as a result of Charles Saatchi’s ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions, are two of the most well-known examples. Such was the influence of this movement that New Labour, following their landslide General Election victory in 1997, sought to rebrand Britain on the strength of it.[1]  This initiative sought to reinvent Britain’s image overseas by rejecting outdated, heritage-based signifiers of British identity in favour of a more modern depiction of what Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, described as “a dynamic, self-confident, outward-looking society, proud of its place as a leading partner in Europe and a pivotal nation in the world” (Ward).

However, in spite of the movement’s support for British contributions to popular culture – almost exclusively English contributions, a confusion to be critiqued in due course – contemporary English literature was alienated from the movement. Accordingly, it has largely been overlooked in literary scholarship thus far. Yet the movement’s promotion of an Anglocentric agenda brought discussion of contemporary English identity to the fore, making it relevant to ongoing critical debates about national identity. As critics of both contemporary literature and ‘Cool Britannia’ agree on several key issues – including the aforementioned confusion of ‘Britishness’ with ‘Englishness,’ thereby reinforcing English domination of British identity, and the problem of exclusivity posed by the existence of a homogenous ‘English’ identity – there is clearly scope to fuse these debates and consider the two fields in tandem.

This paper will attempt to bridge the gap between these two areas of scholarship by examining London Fields by Martin Amis and England, England by Julian Barnes alongside key works from the ‘Cool Britannia’ era and contemporary journalism. In doing so, I will compare the ‘Cool Britannia’ depictions of England and English identity with those portrayed in late twentieth century literature. I will argue that literature was alienated from ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric because the latter’s proliferation of reductive forms of English identity sought to promote a coherent, reified English identity, whereas Barnes and Amis used postmodern theories and techniques to challenge both established signifiers of Englishness and the notion of national identity itself. These two ideologies were therefore not only disparate, but incompatible.

Neither author was aligned with the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement; indeed, London Fields was published in 1989, long before ‘Cool Britannia’ emerged. Nevertheless, its appropriation as a major inspiration for the Britpop band Blur’s 1994 album Parklife – the first ‘Britpop’ album to push a coherent English agenda into wider public consciousness – proved that Amis’s ideas on national identity were as relevant in the mid-1990s as they were at the tail-end of the 1980s.However, the distance maintained from these ideas allowed them to use satire to exploit and undermine flaws in the traditional English identities, such as those advocated by the movement. These flaws include the lingering taint of Imperialism, the tendency to marginalise communities outside of London, and the tendency to reduce English identity to lists of disparate signifiers.

My argument will be developed over three sections. The first section will establish the ‘Cool Britannia’ depiction of English identity using political, journalistic and musical rhetoric from the 1990s, as I believe they were the three most influential sectors to proliferate the myth of ‘Cool Britannia’. The following sections will focus on outlining the ways in which late 20th century English fiction questions the English identity projected by ‘Cool Britannia’. The second will examine how Martin Amis’s London Fields distorts established tropes of English identity, particularly class-based stereotypes and the centralisation of London, using an unreliable narrator and narrative fragmentation. In this section, Parklife is used to illustrate how the ‘Cool Britannia’ celebration of London, which endorses its centralisation, is at odds with Amis’s vision of the city. In the third section, England, England by Julian Barnes will be scrutinised in tandem with Mark Leonard’s 1997 pamphlet Britain™: Renewing Our Identity, the primary inspiration behind New Labour’s ‘rebranding of Britain’ policy. This section discusses the notion of English identity as a global brand, replication and authenticity, using Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation to argue that the replication of stereotypes associated with Englishness projects a depiction of English identity with no basis in reality.

It is important to clarify my definitions of ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘Britpop’ in advance. The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines ‘Cool Britannia’ as a cultural movement associated with the perception of “Britain… as a stylish and fashionable place, esp. (in the late 1990s) as represented by the international success of and interest in contemporary British art, popular music, film, and fashion” (‘Cool Britannia’).[2] While I largely agree with this definition, I will challenge one detail of it. I would suggest that the time span specified be widened to include the early and mid-1990s, as the different scenes that comprised ‘Cool Britannia’ developed at different rates. ‘Britart’, for example, gained popular momentum from 1992 onwards as a result of the ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions – the very name of which suggests a collective British identity. ‘Britpop’, on the other hand, had originated in the patriotic manifesto originally embraced by the bands Suede and Blur in 1992 as a reaction against the pervasive American ‘grunge’ culture, but did not reach mainstream public consciousness until August 1995.[3] The early 1990s are, therefore, crucial to the accumulation of patriotic sentiment that resulted in the construction of an overarching ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric.

While ‘Britpop’ has sometimes been used to describe British pop music generally, it will here describe the 1990s rock music scene that, despite its name suggesting a scene encompassing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish artists, consisted entirely of English bands. The bands who most vociferously endorsed an Anglocentric ethos in the press and their lyrics were Suede, Pulp, and Blur, whose support for the English cause manifested itself in a trilogy of albums from 1993 to 1995 whose lyrics consistently centred on the minutiae and absurdity of English life. However, the most successful of these was Mancunian quintet Oasis, whose 1995 album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? is, at the time of writing, the fourth biggest-selling British album in UK history (Lane).

With the exception of Pulp, preeminent Britpop bands invariably featured all-male line-ups. Yet women were not necessarily excluded from the Britpop narrative. Several successful bands, including Sleeper, Echobelly and Elastica, had line-ups that were either female-led or female-dominated. Yet ‘Cool Britannia’ became associated with ‘lad culture’ – a phenomenon fuelled by the popularity of ‘lad’ magazine Loaded magazine, launched in 1994. Sheila Whiteley suggests that:

The media focused more on the regional rivalry between Oasis and Blur, stressing a musical family tree which was rooted in territorial fraternalism. As such, its female bands, Elastica, Echobelly and Sleeper could only be relegated to second-division players if Britpop was to retain its identity. (271)

She also points out that the objectification or overlooking of women in ‘Cool Britannia’ was “partially rescued by the Spice Girls’ girl-power fun feminism” (271), although the band’s divergence from the Britpop sound – that of “guitar-led groups… drawing on specifically British influences… such as the Beatles, mod [and] glam rock” (‘Britpop’) – would arguably prevent them from being considered a Britpop band.

While Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell’s dismissal of the ‘Cool Britannia’ in 2001 explicitly marked the end of New Labour’s exploitation of it (Laughlin), the movement had fizzled out long before this. John Harris suggests that Britpop had collapsed by late 1997, as Blur had abandoned their support of both New Labour and a pro-English schema, while alternative music journalism began to focus on more musically iconoclastic bands such as Radiohead and Spiritualized (Harris 347-8). Both this and the post-General Election disillusionment felt by the pop cultural press with Tony Blair by 1998 (Harris 358), whose administration had been bound up in ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse by its propaganda efforts, resulted in celebrations of nationality in the press beginning to wane. Following the failure of New Labour projects intended to help ‘rebrand’ Britain, such as the Millennium Dome, Tessa Jowell summarised that Cool Britannia “failed because it did not realise that ‘our national culture is something amorphous, something changing, and something complex’ defined by and open to external influences” (Laughlin) – a statement that, I believe, fairly reflects the limitations of attempting to comprehensively define national identity in a tumultuous period of history.


[1] Prior to the election, the party associated themselves with some of Britpop’s leading figureheads to appeal to younger voters. Examples of this, such as Damon Albarn of Blur meeting with Tony Blair at the Houses of Parliament in 1995 so he could be cajoled into supporting the party in the media (Harris 196-200), are outlined in more detail in John Harris’s comprehensive guide to Britpop, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock.

[2] This is not necessarily an exhaustive list. At times, national success in sport also contributed to patriotic rhetoric, particularly during the England-based UEFA European Football Championship in 1996.

[3] In 1995, rival Britpop bands Blur and Oasis released singles on the same day in what became known as the ‘Battle of Britpop’. The polemic potential of the bands’ disparate backgrounds, satirised by Pat Kane as “North against South, middle against working class, fops against thugs” (15), sparked a media frenzy.

1. The ‘Cool Britannia’ England

In February 1996, an article in The Daily Express declared that “Britness is spreading”, citing the contemporary celebration of “Britpop, Brit art, Brit film, Brit babes, Brit clothes [and] Brit lads” (Allan 42) that typified ‘Cool Britannia’. Yet this notion of Britishness was, in its estimation, “over-used and under-defined” (42). In this chapter, I will be examining depictions of English identity in political speech, Britpop and journalism from national tabloids, broadsheets and music magazines.[1] From these sources, I will define what exactly ‘Cool Britannia’ signified. Although ‘Brit’ and ‘Britannia’ imply the movement represented a combination of English, Welsh and Scottish identity, I will suggest that it characterised a predominantly English sense of identity. I will ultimately argue that these depictions of England were outdated as, in light of England’s modern-day multiculturalism, any attempt to codify an English identity based solely on traditional images is unable to truly represent modern England – particularly as certain images carry the lingering taint of Imperialism, which is incompatible with a multicultural society.

Of the facets of ‘Cool Britannia’ outlined earlier, national identity was possibly most overt in Britpop and its media coverage. Derek B Scott suggests that the music itself is innately English not only because of the bands’ oft-cited debt to English musical heritage – particularly the likes of The Beatles, David Bowie and The Kinks – but also due to some of Britpop acts’ reappropriation of early twentieth century ‘English’ modes of music, including “old church music, traditional rural songs and certain music-hall ‘character songs’” (104). Blur in particular evidence these claims, as character songs are rife throughout their ‘Life’ trilogy of albums[2], while Scott has cited their debt to traditional rural music on Parklife’s penultimate track ‘This Is A Low’, suggesting that “the flattened sevenths… relate to the Mixolydian mode that is often found in folksong” (105). They also appropriated music-hall staples ‘Daisy Bell’ and ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’ as B-sides for their 1993 single ‘Sunday Sunday’, in a clear nod to traditionally English styles of popular music.

Scott’s comments on the Englishness of these forms suggest that the term ‘Britpop’ is something of a misnomer, and he clarifies that “Britpop should really have been called Engpop because… the bands were English” (103). Mark J. Percival suggests that contemporary British, but non-English, alternative bands such as Mogwai and the Manic Street Preachers were alienated from the movement as “the explicit Englishness of Britpop was part of a cultural narrative that codified a pre-existing sense of Wales and Scotland as a distant ‘other’” (124). He also claims that “Britpop despite its apparent openness to regional groups… was in reality London-centric and deeply exclusivist” (123); in Chapter 2 I will contend that this is indicative of a wider tendency to centralise London and marginalise England’s peripheries.

Britpop lyrics often sought to articulate “quintessentially British experiences, a quality given an almost political importance by the… American domination of alternative rock” (Harris xv).[3] This need for bands to define themselves against their American counterparts, particularly Nirvana, was inspired by the fact that “Much of Nirvana’s persona – Cobain’s white-trash background, the importance of Seattle to their rise, the fact that their disaffection was so American – made precious little sense in a British context” (60). Elastica’s vocalist, Justine Frischmann, confirms that the bands desired a “manifesto for the return of Britishness” because “We didn’t think Nirvana said anything to us about our lives” (79). Blur’s second album, on which ‘Sunday Sunday’ featured, was almost titled England Vs America (80); though it was eventually named Modern Life Is Rubbish, there was a clear intent to participate in the anti-American stance that Harris mentions as partly defining the movement. The press also participated, courtesy of Select’s April 1993 edition, entitled ‘Yanks Go Home!’. The cover feature, ‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Cobain?’ (Maconie 60-71), celebrated five up-and-coming English bands – among them, Suede and Pulp.

Although this was perhaps the most brazen support for Britpop, it was not the first instance of Britpop rhetoric going public. Suede’s early career was partly defined by their nationhood in both the media and their own interview answers, although they later distanced themselves from the movement. An early NME review of their live performance described them as being “as English as nine pence and the smell of the leathered back seats of ‘50s Vauxhalls” (Sutherland 15), while singer Brett Anderson not only pre-empted both Select and Blur’s anti-American statements in the press in an NME article in 1992, but also attempted to articulate the national identity that his band sought to represent by embracing a pro-English agenda:

I’m not remotely attracted by New York. I mean, all the streets are laid out in a grid. Doesn’t that say everything? In Britain, it takes this convoluted, arcane knowledge to get from one bus-stop to the next. That claustrophobic, stifled Englishness is conducive to great art. (Harris 77)

Such statements helped to give Britpop a vague definition of what English identity symbolised. However, it is important to note that in Anderson’s parlance, ‘Britain’ is effectively used as a synonym for ‘England’.

This confusion of ‘British’ and ‘English’ identity was also, dangerously, echoed in the political arena. Percival cites James Tilley and Edward Heath’s argument in their essay ‘The Decline of British National Pride’ that “that there was a stridently English version of Britishness espoused by both [Margaret] Thatcher and [John] Major administrations” (124) that alienated the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish populace. Such a claim seems justified in light of Major’s 1993 speech at a Conservative Group For Europe dinner in which he used “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” as an image that epitomised British life. This was borrowed from George Orwell’s 1941 essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, in which “Orwell pondered the unique attributes of ‘English civilisation’ and concluded that it was ‘somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes’” (‘Leading Article: What a lot of tosh’). That ‘English’ is specified in the title when the speech alludes to Britain as a whole, not to mention the text’s socialist politics being an inappropriate reference for a right-wing politician, implies that either Major or his speechwriter made an error. Yet the fact that what Major believed to be prominent symbols of Britishness carried distinctly English connotations says much about the English dominance of a supposedly ‘British’ identity.

Issues of English dominance also came to the fore with the entanglement of ‘Cool Britannia’ and the taint of empire over discourses surrounding connotations of the Union Jack, a ubiquitous symbol of ‘Cool Britannia’. The movement did, superficially, help to liberate the flag from some of its associations with far-right politics, who had adopted it on account of its imperialist subtext. It was first reappropriated for the cover of Select’s ‘Yanks Go Home!’ edition, and soon became synonymous with the movement – perhaps most notably when Geri Halliwell wore a Union Jack minidress for the Spice Girls’ performance at the 1997 Brit Awards.[4] As a result, it became representative of little more than a kitsch nod to the 1960s.[5] Yet even this had dubious implications: Sheila Whiteley cites the influx of immigrants, their subsequent poverty in concentrated communities and marginalisation by authorities, and Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 as issues that implied racism in 1960s Britain (268-9). While the editor of Select at the time of the ‘Yanks Go Home!’ issue criticised those who condemned the flag’s use as “dogma from the gurus of right-on”, claiming that “they never could understand that you can be proud to be British without wanting a return to the days of the Raj” (Harrison 67), this overlooked the fact that lingering notions of imperial grandeur still permeated public consciousness. Liam Gallagher, vocalist with Oasis, objected to an early band demo’s cover featuring  the flag appearing to be sucked down a plughole, saying “It’s the greatest flag in the world and it’s going down the shitter” (Harris 130). Claims of ‘greatness’, however naively made, seem to go beyond mere ‘Cool Britannia’ jingoism and suggest that imperialism was still engrained in national consciousness.

Imperialism and exclusivism were incompatible with the increasingly multicultural 1990s England. Mark Leonard claimed in 1997 that “over 3 million people (5.5 per cent) [described] themselves as belonging to a ‘non-white’ group” (52), yet this chunk of the population was barely included in ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse. Whiteley references the fact that lead singer of Echobelly, Sonya Aurora Madan – whose family had emigrated from India when she was two years old – was “known to wear a Union Jack T-shirt with “My Country Too” scrawled across it” (271), suggesting a pointed awareness by these groups that they were excluded from this period of both literal and figurative flag-waving. She goes on to speculate that, troublingly, “by selectively invoking the sounds and sensibility of English popular culture of earlier eras, Britpop managed to erase the troubling reminder that Britain is a multi-ethnic society” (271), concluding that Britpop “constructed a version of Englishness that was rooted in a thoughtless and hedonistic imperialism” (272).

However, traditional English identity has been seen exclusivist even to those born in England. Hilary Mantel suggests in her essay ‘No Passes or Documents Are Needed: The Writer at Home in Europe’ that “Englishness was white, male, southern, Protestant, and middle class” (96). Southernness and religion aside, the majority of members in Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede would fit this definition. Returning to the aforementioned overwhelming maleness of Britpop in my introduction, Mantel’s description of English identity explains perhaps this gender disparity in part: women were not inducted as eagerly into Britpop discourse because they did not fit the ‘traditional’, masculine stereotype of Englishness. Given that the country is personified by the female figure of Britannia, there is some irony to this.

The essential failing of ‘Cool Britannia’, then, is that by celebrating obsolete but familiar modes of Englishness, it failed to accommodate the reality of what defined 1990s Englishness: a multicultural society, a reduction in cultural domination over the other countries in the United Kingdom, and a far less prominent standing on the world stage. While New Labour’s attempt to ‘rebrand Britain’ – which I will discuss in Chapter 3 – attempted to reconcile perceptions of national identity with what late twentieth century England entailed, the majority of ‘Cool Britannia’ interpretations of English identity celebrated unrepentantly nostalgic signifiers. Yet to glorify previous eras of English history – particularly the 1960s – and whitewash their failings is troublesome, not least for its implicit support of Imperialism. The apparent exclusion of untraditional English identities from the ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse undermined the supposed celebration of contemporary England, and therefore could not work as a believable commentary on national identity.


[1] Although The Guardian has been a tabloid since 2012, it was a broadsheet newspaper in the 1990s.

[2] This trilogy comprises Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape, which were “tied together by [Damon] Albarn’s Anglo-centric lyrics” (Harris 238). The name is derived from Blur’s “original intention to include the word ‘life’ in each of the three album titles” (239).

[3] Such lyrics are typified by those of Blur’s ‘Sunday Sunday’, which detail ‘quintessentially’ English Sunday pastimes (Modern Life Is Rubbish). These include eating a roast dinner – described as “protein on a plate” – with one’s family, and watching the long-running BBC show Songs of Praise.

[4] While the Spice Girls were not a Britpop band, their Brit Awards performance came as pro-British rhetoric reached its peak in the media. As a result, Halliwell’s decision to “celebrate being British” struck a chord with the press, whose proliferation of the image made the dress iconic enough to sell at auction for £41,320 in 1998 (‘Geri Halliwell…’).

[5] ‘Cool Britannia’ had elements of a 1960s revival about it. The renaissance of London as a ‘cool’ city emulated the oft-celebrated ‘Swinging London’ scene of the mid-1960s, while hope for a second ‘British Invasion’ – a phenomenon in which English bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones attained worldwide popularity, most notably in the USA – accompanied the celebration of English bands in the media.

2. ‘The Love and Poison of London’: Class, Geographical Politics and Instability in London Fields’s London Identities[1]

Significantly, the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary Online definition of ‘Cool Britannia’ does not specify contemporary British literature as part of the movement. However, one of Britpop’s definitive albums, Blur’s Parklife, was largely influenced by Martin Amis’s novel London Fields. While the novel pre-dates Britpop and ‘Cool Britannia’, it engages with English identity through both its study of its urban surroundings and its projection of traditional class-based English identities onto its characters. Yet the characters, being caricatures, distort such images. The novel’s postmodern elements, in particular its fragmented structure and unreliable first person narrator, instead imply an uncertain but modern vision of English identity. I will suggest that Amis’s use of London as a centre of madness and confusion also destabilises the tendency to centralise and normalise London while ignoring locales beyond the capital. This is particularly evident when compared to Parklife, whose lyrics exile unstable characters to the peripheries of England.

The centralisation and celebration of London in British culture intensified with the apogee of ‘Cool Britannia’. Music journalism focused on Camden, where Britpop bands lived and socialised: Melody Maker’s feature on the borough in June 1995 even came with an annotated map of the area (Parkes, Taylor and Manning 30-1). Influential pop culture magazines compared it to the ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s – in some cases, suggesting that 1990s London had superseded it. David Kamp, in his 1997 Vanity Fair article ‘London Swings! Again!’, claimed that although “Any mental images we have of a ‘swinging’ London, of a city in glorious thrall to a thriving youth culture, are indelibly 60s ones”, it was now “cast once again… the place to which we must all look to learn how to act, think, and dress”. An earlier piece in Newsweek, entitled ‘London Reigns’, declared in November 1996 that London was “the coolest city on the planet” (MacGuire et al.) – a soundbite parroted by John Major at the Lord Mayor’s Guildhall Banquet later that month.

Likewise, London as a setting has typically dominated English fiction. Ian A Bell states that “By its very metropolitanism… the British novel inevitably conglomerates around London” (‘Introduction…’ 2). Yet unlike the journalism of the late twentieth century, the fiction of this period sought to decentralise it. Ironically, this is partly a result of developments in Westminster, as “[j]ust as the political arena [had] seen devolution and, in the late 1990s, the creation of new parliaments for both Scotland and Wales, …in literature there [was] a resurgence in fiction set outside the narrow ambit of London” (Rennison xii). Some novels see London dismantled altogether; in Julian Barnes’s England, England, copies of London’s key monuments built on the Isle of Wight, onto which a theme park simulacrum of England is assembled, in order to make landmarks more convenient for tourists to access. These ‘fake’ monuments become more popular than the ‘real’ sites, resulting in London and, consequently, England disintegrating until England has regressed to a pre-industrial nation by the novel’s end. Despite London’s downfall within the text, however, Barnes’s conclusion only serves to highlight how central London is not only to the economic health, but to the identity of England.

It is fitting, then, that Amis uses London as a backdrop against which to study English identity. Yet the title, fusing urban and rural landscapes, seems a paradox. By writing that “this is London; and there are no fields” (134), Amis confirms that this is intentional. The confusion caused by an impossible title is representative of Amis’s endemic tendency to undermine narrative assumptions, chiefly through his use of a first-person narrator, Samson ‘Sam’ Young. Young is American, but has previous experience of living in London and distinguishes himself from the stereotypically ignorant American tourist when he states that “I know my way around. I’m not over here to see Harrods and Buckingham Palace, and Stratford-on-Avon. I don’t say twenty quids and Trafaljar Square and Barnet” (11). His boast that “I understand the English. I’m ashamed to say I pride myself on it” (60) further reassures the reader that his interpretations of English identities are reliable.

The class system, as one of the defining characteristics of English identity, is something that Amis projects onto his characters.[2] Following his return to England, Sam runs into Keith Talent and Guy Clinch, two men defined in opposition throughout the novel by exaggerations of their class. Guy is a titled member of the gentry, whose affluence knows no bounds: “Guy Clinch had everything. In fact he had two of everything” (28). Keith Talent, on the other hand, is a small-time con artist who “grew up in a low-rent basement flat” (107) owned by the council, and in his adulthood lives in a shabby tower block called Windsor House. Its name ironically invokes connotations of the British Royal Family and, with it, implications of wealth, grandeur and – crucially – aristocracy. Graham Fuller has described him as “damned by class, a victim of cancerous cultural conditioning and forlorn dreams of betterment” (qtd. in Diedrick 123): his ambitions amount to little more than to become “a household name” in darts and “give every barmaid in Britain one” (Amis 54). Both men are trapped in London for opposite reasons. Guy’s wife, Hope, refuses to move out of the city on account of her social ambitions, while Keith – who has only left London once in his life (8) and is therefore an entirely Londonised construct – lacks both the financial means to escape and a knowledge of anywhere beyond the capital: part of his darting dream is to move to Twickenham, an affluent suburb of London (54).

Sam willingly reinforces the binary of the class of these men[3] in order to validate his interpretation of England as a “slum-and-plutocrat” nation (137). His understanding of English class stereotypes leads him to deduce that Keith, who has had to literally fight to earn (or, more accurately, cheat) a living, will be the murderer instead of Guy, whose pampered background has required him to fight for nothing. Yet these assumptions based on class stereotypes are unsubstantiated, as it is Sam who turns out to be the murderer. Nick Bentley highlights Amis’s inferred warning about investing in established class identity stereotypes:

Sam effectively misreads the characters because he accepts the stereotypes unquestioningly. However, the reader is also implicated in this misreading, an effect produced by the desire to believe the positions taken by a first-person narrator… but the unfolding of events signals the dangers of too easily accepting stereotypes. (38)

Sam’s oft-discussed inability to invent fiction implies that he truly believes these stereotypes are genuine – an indicator of just how deeply rooted such class biases are engrained into traditional comprehensions of English identity.[4]

It is not only class that Sam misreads in England. The whole English national identity that he recognises from his previous experiences is changing as a result of “ten years of Relative Decline” (Amis 14), the threat of nuclear warfare developing from Europe – “nobody in their right mind wants to come to Europe… everyone wants to go the other way, as Heathrow confirmed” (2) – and global warming. These factors either alter traditional English nuances, or make them universal; Sam states fondly that “The English, Lord love them, they talk about the weather”, before clarifying that “so does everybody else on earth, these days” (14). As a result, while at first he claims he can understand London and, by association, England despite his ten year absence – “I always felt like I knew where London was heading” (3) – he realises over the novel’s progression that the changes in his absence have rendered his perception of Englishness outdated: “There was a time when I thought I could read the streets of London… But now I don’t think I can. Either I’m losing it, or the streets are getting harder to read” (367). At the novel’s climax, he discerns that this change in the state of the nation has been reflected in the population, meaning that his interpretations of characters in his novel are misguided because they are based on outdated perceptions of identity. He concludes that “The people in here, they’re like London… a long way from any shape I’ve tried to equip them with, strictly non-symmetrical, exactly lopsided” (463). This means that the characters in his novel, for which he has tried so hard to ensure verisimilitude, are rendered fictional – ironic, given his aforementioned belief that he cannot write fiction.

This unreliable narration is one of several postmodern tropes used by Amis. These destabilise his depictions of London and English identity just as much as the looming nuclear and climate threats that the characters face.[5] The text alternates between chapters of Sam’s novel and ones of his private commentary, which contributes to the blurring of his perceptions of ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’. By effectively splicing together two texts, the novel becomes fragmented. Fragmentation is a key concept of postmodernism, with Jean Baudrillard theorising that “postmodern culture recycles fragments of the past, a process characterised as just ‘playing with the pieces’” (Meecham and Sheldon 104). Postmodernism itself was originally described as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard xxvi): postmodern fiction could perhaps be characterised as incredulity towards conventional linear narratives. Sam reflects on the nature of form, suggesting that “Perhaps because of their addiction to form writers always lag behind the contemporary formlessness. They write about an old reality, in a language that’s even older” (Amis 238). This vindicates the novel’s postmodernity, implying that it is more able to represent the new reality of late twentieth-century England.

Magdalena Maczynska argues that a London setting is particularly suited to postmodern fiction because “The character of the global city itself encourages the development of flexible, multifaceted textual formulas” (84). She writes that, as the “philosophical and artistic developments of postmodernity have shaken old generic certainties” (84), it is the most representative way of presenting “the turbulent changes undergone by the British capital during its transition toward a decentralized, postcolonial polis” (59). However, London is treated as a microcosm of England in the novel, as England beyond the outskirts of London is never explored during the text, meaning that generalisations about English identity made throughout the text can only be judged on London characters’ identities. I would therefore extend Maczynska’s argument by suggesting that her statements apply not only to London’s identity, but English identity as a whole. After all, it was not just London but England that was undergoing turbulent changes, and adjusting to becoming decentralised after the fall of the British Empire.

However, postmodern disorder undermining the capital, and by proxy English identity, did not fit into the ‘Cool Britannia’ glorification of London. Blur’s chart-topping third album, Parklife, was widely considered to celebrate England. While the band claimed that appreciating England was not the same as celebrating it, stating that they had a “love-hate relationship with Britain” and that their songs about the nation were “tempered with cynicism and aggression” (Harris 139), their veneration of London appeared untempered by scepticism. Acknowledging the album was inspired by Amis’s treatment of the city in London Fields, lead singer Damon Albarn asserted that “London’s… something you fall in love with” (Moody 30). Their love of the city was mirrored by its frequent inclusion in their lyrics – perhaps most poignantly in ‘For Tomorrow’ (Modern Life Is Rubbish) – and occasionally song titles, with Parklife featuring a song entitled ‘London Loves’.

Yet their most powerful vindication of London arguably came from lyrics situated on the peripheries of England. Three songs on Parklife – ‘Tracey Jacks’, ‘Clover Over Dover’ and ‘This Is A Low’ – portray unstable characters who exhibit signs of madness or depression. The eponymous protagonist of ‘Tracey Jacks’ elopes to the Essex coast at Walton-on-the-Naze and streaks along the beach, leading to his arrest, while the narrator of ‘Clover Over Dover’ considers jumping off the White Cliffs of Dover. The lyrics of ‘This Is A Low’ detail the shipping forecast and indicate an economic recession so debilitating that even the monarch becomes suicidal: “The Queen, she’s gone round the bend/Jumped off Land’s End”. What is notable is that all three characters are displaced to the margins of England, including the characters that typically reside in London.[6] This removal of unstable characters from London seems to purge the city of madness, reinforcing the normalisation of London in doing so.

London Fields, however, concentrates confusion and madness in the capital. The paradoxes, undermined assumptions and fragmentation discussed above all contribute to depicting the city as unstable and confusing. This is emphasised by the fact that mad characters are not displaced to the peripheries, but drawn to London. Analiese, one of Keith’s mistresses, who “in Keith’s view, was mental” is “given to panic attacks, swoons [and] hysterical blindness” (48). She moves to Slough during the course of the novel, and therefore appears to be displaced from the city, just as the unstable characters of Parklife are. However, where characters in Parklife are exiled to the coast, Slough is situated on the outskirts of London. This move does not last long: she returns to the city, “tired of Slough, tired of mildly scandalizing the blighted dormitory estate” (335). This suggests that her unstable tendencies are better catered by the similarly unstable nature of London. Amis describes her as “most representative, most modern” (48): she can, therefore, be seen to personify characteristics of not only her urban surroundings, but of late twentieth-century English identity itself.

While Parklife and ‘Cool Britannia’ iconified London, London Fields depicted it several years earlier as a sinister and unstable city. By destabilising it through postmodern tropes, Amis challenges tendencies to normalise and, as a result, centralise the capital. These tendencies, along with the assumptions of English class-based identity that he undermines, are central to the notion of Englishness that ‘Cool Britannia’ celebrated. Although the novel preceded the movement, it accurately highlights outdated or false aspects of English identity that continued to be proliferated in spite of the fact they are no longer representative, and therefore undermined several of the foundations of ‘Cool Britannia’ before it had even begun.


[1] “The love and poison of London” is a lyric in the 1992 Suede B-side ‘He’s Dead’ (Suede).

[2] Dominic Head comprehensively defines the influence of class on depictions of English identity in his chapter ‘Class and Social Change’ (Cambridge Introduction 49-82). Class identity came to the fore in ‘Cool Britannia’ when Oasis and Blur were characterised as working-class and middle-class respectively (see footnote 3).

[3]As with Britpop, women appear excluded from traditional Englishness. The novel’s leading lady, femme fatale and murderee-to-be Nicola Six, has an accent “which was definitely foreign (Europe, thought Keith: somewhere in the middle)”. While this is not a definite marker of non-Englishness, the specifics of her nationality are never resolved within the text.

[4] Ironically, the stereotypes that Amis parodies here have laid him open to criticisms of snobbery on account of his own middle-class background. Philip Tew writes that “One ought to wonder whether such parodies of the working-class of proletarian male […] can be sufficiently ironic to be reduced to generic, textual, or postmodern matters” (qtd. in Bentley 38).

[5]Although ‘unreliable narration’ would usually imply that the narrator is deliberately deceiving the reader, which is not the case here, the projection of Sam’s personal biases still distorts the reader’s opinion.

[6] While the song never confirms where Tracey Jacks lives, the fact that he visits “a Harley Street doctor” implies that he lives in or on the outskirts of London.

3. English Identity as a Brand in England, England and BritainTM: Renewing Our Identity

The peak of ‘Cool Britannia’ coincided with a boom in British tourism. August 1996 brought three million overseas visitors to the UK, a record at the time (Harris 328). Yet despite any correlation that could be drawn from this, a 1997 pamphlet by Mark Leonard entitled Britain: Renewing Our Identity suggested that “only a small minority of younger people in the US, Holland and Australia had heard of the modern British revival” (14) and that ‘Cool Britannia’ was an insular movement that had “passed by much of the rest of the world” (9). The reason for this, he argued, was that both foreign and domestic perceptions of British identity were based on outdated signifiers. In his opinion, the only way to safeguard Britain’s profitability as a tourist destination was to modernise the identity promoted by the British tourist board, relying less on archaic, heritage-based symbols and more on Britain’s modern reality. This argument was compelling enough for the government to launch an initiative referred to by John Harris as “the rebranding of Britain” (355).

National identity as a brand was also the focus of Julian Barnes’s eighth novel, England, England, published the year after Leonard’s pamphlet. Barnes, unlike Leonard, engages with English rather than British identity, but both texts acknowledge the conflict of needing to reconcile heritage-based symbols of Britain with modern ones. Barnes’s characters ‘resolve’ this dilemma by creating new versions of old signifiers  and building them on the Isle of Wight – newly renamed ‘England, England’ – in order to create a theme park version of England, driven entirely by the whims of tourists.[1] Yet the team responsible for creating ‘England, England’ rely heavily on a list of disparate signifiers to help them ‘define’ English identity in the project – representative of a wider tendency to do so in English society. By replicating these stereotypes of English identity, which are implied to be false, the project is what Jean Baudrillard deems a simulacrum: an image which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever” (368). The implication that signifiers of national identity are inherently false undermines Leonard’s call to strive for a representative, marketable British identity. This indicates that Barnes is sceptical towards the notion of nation as a brand. I will argue that his scepticism towards projections of coherent national identity based on such ‘false’ signifiers reflects the change in mood towards ‘Cool Britannia’, which the press had become disillusioned with by 1998.

Although Britainwas embraced by the Labour party – whose enthusiastic involvement in ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric I have already outlined – and incorporated into ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse, Leonard’s text seems wary of the movement. While his claim that “‘Cool Britannia’ sets the pace in everything from food to fashion” (5) appears to reinforce the media rhetoric examined in Section 1, the inference that the movement was only a domestic one undermines it instead. Harris has used Vanity Fair’s decision to only put its ‘London Swings! Again!’ feature on the cover for its British edition, instead using an American actress for the American cover, to corroborate this view (328). Yet even Britons seemed less invested in celebrating their nationality than the media had suggested they were, with Leonard’s research claiming that “Only 50 per cent regard Britishness as an important part of their identity” (2). This suggests either that the enervating effects of ‘Cool Britannia’ were flagging by the time of Britain’s publication in autumn 1997, or that the jubilant national mood portrayed by the press in previous years had been exaggerated.

Leonard’s main concern was that the signifiers used to promote English identity abroad were heritage-based, and therefore old and possibly obsolete:

Because there is little consensus about what Britain stands for at home, the institutions charged with promoting Britain abroad… cannot project a coherent forward-looking image of country… Often, they opt for the line of least resistance, presenting Britain as a nation of heritage. (2)

Heritage-based signifiers, often bound up with Imperialist connotations, alienated the global market.[2] He believed that it was necessary to “find a better fit between [Britain’s] heritage and what [Britain was] becoming” (5) in order to reap the economic benefits of increased tourism and, consequently, “a period of renewal and increased self-confidence” (70). New Labour were also concerned by this, evidenced by the rebranding of the Department of Heritage as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport following their 1997 election victory (Thurley). They sought to modernise by developing new, iconic architecture; even before the publication of BritainTM, Blair had backed the building of an iconic structure called the Millennium Dome, at whose launch the MP Peter Mandelson announced that “The shift we need to make is from defining ourselves by our past to defining ourselves by our future” (Thurley).

Inspired by the pamphlet, Tony Blair’s newly-installed Labour government assembled a team comprised of celebrities, politicians and entrepreneurs to advise them on modernising the global projection of English identity. Named ‘Panel 2000’, the initiative was made public in April 1998. However, ‘Cool Britannia’ had largely collapsed by this point as a result of the implosion of Britpop and a change in the mood of the press. Despite Leonard and Labour’s aim being to promote a modernised British identity, marking a move away from the nostalgic mood of ‘Cool Britannia’, both Labour’s recent dalliances with the movement and their continuation of rhetoric based on national pride meant that it came to be associated with the movement. Accordingly, the media – which had celebrated attempts to promote Englishness to a global market at the height of ‘Cool Britannia’ – reacted cynically to Panel 2000. The Guardian wrote that “A government… attempting to ‘rebrand’ these islands is one thing… but to seem to be eulogising newness while appearing to be doing little to sort out the physical infrastructure of tired old Britain is quite another” (Glancey 4), while The Daily Mail deemed it “a demeaning and presumptuous charade” (‘Comment’ 8). Despite The Guardian’s use of the word ‘rebrand’, as too has John Harris in later years, Robin Cook had actually “rejected the R-word (rebranding), since it implied an ‘invented, fabricated Britain’” when it was intended to be “‘a very serious enterprise… designed to project the truth and reality of modern Britain’” (Ward 4).

The newly prevailing mood of cynicism regarding statements of national identity was perhaps reflected in the form of English literature. Lindsay Duguid has noted that “all three [English novels on the shortlist for the 1998 Booker Prize] employed some kind of distancing device” from the nation (302). One of these novels, Julian Barnes’s England, England, was a sustained critique of the very idea of Englishness” (302). Nick Bentley has suggested that this critique of Englishness has been reflected in the novel’s form, which is at points Americanised:

[The second section] represents a departure from a form associated with an English literary tradition. Postmodernism, despite many British novelists using the form, is still most associated with American novelists… The encroachment of this foreign mode into the text, therefore, parallels Sir Jack’s Disneyfication of England on the Isle of Wight. (188)

In an interview with Robert Birnbaum following the novel’s publication, Barnes discussed the implicitly nationalised styles of writing and their changing global impact and influence. He suggested that British writers of previous generations “would have thought the English novel was the real novel in English and the American novel was… an upstart. Now British writers would say that the British novel is just one of the forms of the novels in English around the world”.

The final section’s reversion to “a more recognizably English form – the pastoral elegy” (Bentley 188) to represent the return of England, renamed ‘Anglia’, to a pre-industrial nation, could be read as Barnes’s attempt to ‘reclaim’ an established English form. Yet Bentley argues that this too is subverted, as the “pastoral scene is exaggerated to the point of parody… and fictionalized narratives still supply the main way by which identity is formed” (188). Fictionalised narratives are provided by Jez Harris, an expatriated American who invents folk tales for tourists based on pagan stereotypes of “witchcraft and superstition, of sexual rites beneath a glowing moon and the tranced slaughter of livestock” (England, England 243). These become more popular than ‘authentic’ local folklore, reflecting the replacement of ‘authentic’ English monuments with their ‘England, England’ replicas, which are more popular because they cater to the expectations of tourists. Bentley concludes that, despite adopting an ‘authentic’ English form with which to portray England, “The artificiality that fuels the second section contaminates the third, and Jez’s tales form an artificial narrative of Englishness in much the same way as the theme park” (188). That an American is responsible for replacing English fiction – here, the local folklore – with his own could be seen as a metaphor for the ‘hijacking’ of the English novel by America, although I would suggest that Barnes’s scepticism towards English national pride invalidates this reading.

His scepticism manifests itself in parodies of the tendency to reduce English identity to lists of disparate signifiers and stereotypes. Lists are used to establish English identity throughout the novel: as a child, protagonist Martha Cochrane learns the history of England through a chanted list of dates and events (England, England 11), which “succeeds in implanting within the pupils a logical order (or grand narrative) of English history” (Bentley 182), while English cuisine, both regional and national, is comprehensively listed by the ‘England, England’ project’s Gastronomic Sub-Committee (England, England 90-1). A list of employee suggestions for potential logos for the project’s ‘Breakfast Experience’ is rejected by the project’s innovator and financier, Sir Jack Pitman, for the same reasons that Leonard criticises the British tourist boards – that they are outdated: “It’s all too then. Give me now” (120).

However, the most central list is that of the ‘50 Quintessences of Englishness’, compiled by data collected from citizens in twenty-five countries by Pitco’s market research team (83-5) and used to determine what attractions to include in the project. This “potent sending-up of the empiricist approach to Englishness” (Head, ‘Julian Barnes…’ 20) features iconic buildings such as the Houses of Parliament, Wembley Stadium and the Tower of London, folklore in the shape of the Robin Hood legend, and the class system, whose relationship with English identity I examined in Section 2. Dominic Head has written that such lists demonstrate that depictions of English identity are often reduced to “untheorized, empirical assumptions” (Cambridge Introduction 123). The problem with this is that “the symbols of England, without meaning in themselves, are falsely taken as potent signifiers” (124), meaning that the project is comprised merely of “working cultural motifs whose relationship to each other is assumed to be predictable” (Bradford 182).

A list of signifiers which Americans associate with Britishness, similar to the list of ‘50 Quintessences’ is included in Britain, which Leonard presents as proof that globally, there is a “remarkably limited view of what Britain stands for” (10). The reductive nature of such lists is also criticised in England, England by Dr Max, the team’s historian, who deems the project “Vulgar… in that it is based on a coarsening simplification of pretty well everything” (131). However, when asked by Martha if he considers it to be ‘bogus’, he states that he does not doubt the project’s authenticity “Bo-gus implies, to my mind, an authenticity which is being betrayed. But is this, I ask myself, the case in the present instance? Is not the very notion of the authentic somehow, in its own way, bogus?” (131). He therefore considers the notion of English identity on which ‘England, England’ is founded to be false in itself, meaning that the project’s replications of established signifiers of Englishness are not inauthentic because there is no authenticity in what they copy. This undermines Leonard’s argument, as Leonard’s argument requires the existence of an ‘authentic’ English identity.

Questions of authenticity and replication lie at the heart of Barnes’s analysis of English identity, inspired by Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern essay ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. This debt is acknowledged by the inclusion of a French philosopher character in England, England, who gives a presentation to the Pitco employees on theories of replication. While he states that “we must demand the replica” and explicitly endorses the venture by praising its “profoundly modern” ethos (55), Baudrillard’s theory is more sceptical. He claims that images are perverted from reality until they no longer reflect a reality, charting four stages of progression from reality to simulacrum:

1 It is the reflection of a basic reality.

2 It masks and perverts a basic reality.

3 It masks the absence of a basic reality.

4 It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (368)

I would suggest that established signifiers of Englishness such as the ones on the list of ’50 Quintessences’ are those that mask and pervert the reality of English identity, while the list itself, in legitimising and proliferating these stereotypes, masks the absence of representativeness in them. ‘England, England’, then, is the simulacrum, as it replicates nothing but “a caricature of the illusions and falsities that constitute most people’s notions of Englishness” (Bradford 182).

This total disparity between the ‘real’ England and the simulacrum is underscored by the final degradation of the former to a pre-industrial nation. The country entirely isolates itself from the world, having “declared a trade barrier against the rest of the world”, forbidden foreign ownership within the country, and restricted tourists to groups of two or less. Having “progressively shed power, territory, wealth, influence and population” (251), England inverts its Imperialist past and, crucially, defines itself in opposition to ‘England, England’ – a point emphasised by its change of name to ‘Anglia’.

While both texts explore the marketability of English identity as a brand, they come to different conclusions. Leonard outlines a series of measures by which an ‘authentic’ perception of English identity can be reached. Barnes, on the other hand, finds the entire notion of ‘authenticity’ problematic, influenced by Baudrillardian theory. This jars with and undermines both nostalgic and progressive stances on ‘Cool Britannia’, as both consider national identity to be an authentic, reified concept. By 1998, this unproblematised perspective was recognised as outdated and optimistic by not only Barnes, but a disillusioned press, whose lack of enthusiasm for the ‘rebranding of Britain’ doomed it from the start.


[1] The novel and the theme park share a name: to avoid confusion between the two, I refer to the novel in italics and the theme park in inverted commas.

[2] Leonard suggested that scars of Imperialism could be conciliated by “organising a tour by the monarch of all sites where there is still bitterness about Britain’s past… to heal difficult memories and signal that Britain has moved beyond its imperial heritage” (5).

Conclusion

Over the course of three sections, I have established that late twentieth-century English literature was too sceptical of national identity to be involved with ‘Cool Britannia’, which relied on the existence of a reified, coherent English identity. London Fields doubts and destabilises essential aspects of English identity that were reinforced by ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric, while England, England suggests that English identity is based on inauthentic signifiers unfounded in reality. Ultimately, postmodern literature by its very nature could not be reconciled with a movement that celebrated nostalgia and placed its faith in an unproblematised, unrepresentative and outdated narrative of English identity.

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One response

  1. The fact is, everybody other than the English conflate “English” with “British”. The fact is “British” is rammed down the necks of the English. The English, Scots, Welsh and Irish don’t do “British”. “British” is a political and cultural artifice that nobody wants other than those with self-serving interests such as politicians. Immigrants into England were told that the English are racists who must be avoided at all costs and that “British” was the identity to adopt. The tiny minority that opted for Scotland, Wales and Ireland were able to adopt those national identities because of their insignificant numbers in those countries. Black folk do not register even a full percentage point in Scotland for example.

    The British minority are now panicking because the English have unequivocally and gleefully dumped “British” as an identity.

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