Tag Archives: Cool Britannia

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

A long time ago (just over 6 months ago), in a galaxy far, far away (Cornwall), I wrote my dissertation. It was never going to be about Dickens, Austen or Shakespeare, because they’ve been done to death, and there’s no fun treading on eggshells looking for a tiny niche of an author to cover without plagiarising what’s gone before. Needing a subject that would captivate me through 8,000 words (with a 10% more or less allowance) and countless hours of reading, writing, editing and researching, I decided to stick with the devil you know and do it on the 90s. No point going for something different if you’ve already done a load of research on Cool Britannia already.
In spite of half of it decidedly not being about literature, it got a First. Unsurprisingly, the Britpop section was deemed better than the literary stuff. There’s a shocking dearth of “proper” academic work about the 90s, especially the Cool Britannia movement – so, if any madman is scouring the internet for research so they can add to it, maybe my little project will come in handy for them.


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.

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Loving The 90s – It’s Not Paranoid, It’s Bloody Brilliant

Following on from my previous blog post, I feel some sort of perspective is needed. It’s all very well for people like myself to condemn the current music scene; but if no high watermark is represented, how can things improve? Things may change, but not necessarily for the better. Whilst the 60s is commonly presented as the decade to which all other decades must aspire, my personal decade of choice is the 1990s; particularly the Britpop era of 1992 to 1997.

Admittedly, I acknowledge in advance that it’s the decade I know most about musically, as I’ve read books on it (a lot of the information in this article has been gleaned from John Harris’s excellent The Last Party; Britpop, Blair and The Downfall of British Rock Music) and hold great pride in the fact that I was born in the week that ‘The Drowners’ by Suede was released, the single that kick-started public opinion on Britpop and British music in general. Despite usually being cast off as a poor man’s duplicate of the British scene of the 1960s (Blur representing the Kinks-esque quintessential Englishness and Oasis providing frequent allusions to The Beatles), in reality the landscape of the 90s was more multi-faceted than the two artists around whom the ‘Battle of Britpop’ centred. All aspects of good music were represented. Suede, who resurrected British indie music after the lean shoegazing period and managed to sneak into the mainstream following a charged performance at the staid 1993 Brit awards, offered a dark and sexually ambiguous glamour along with astonishingly complex guitar solos and lyrics which were akin to a warped poetry, something more reminiscent of a 70s Bowie than anything from the 1960s. The sadly long-forgotten Elastica, whose debut was the fastest-selling of all time in 1995, boasted a three-quarters female line up (incidentally, the last two words were the title of the opening track on Elastica) and therefore were an advertisement for ‘Girl Power’ several years before The Spice Girls made the point explicit. However, let them not be remembered just for the band members’ gender; they specialised in ironic lyrics and short, sharp songs, having been influenced by punk and the underground scene. Pulp meanwhile also dealt in a witty currency, best manifested in the ubiquitous single Common People; but this wit was infused in a camp voyeurism rather than the typical-romantic-lyrics-pastiches that Elastica specialised in. Surely this surpasses The Beatles and their ilk in at least one way; most of their lyrics dealt in requited or unrequited love, and only in their later albums did they have sarcasm or irony (most notably, ‘Back In The USSR’ was written to poke fun at rivals The Beach Boys). Menswear also briefly acted as a personification of the frivolity of pop music, a more indie-ish Blue or JLS who had the advantage of being able to play their instruments and, in some cases, being fairly attractive.

As for Blur and Oasis, who consciously modelled themselves on their spiritual ancestors of the 1960s, they also brought different skills and sounds to the Cool Britannia party. Oasis, whilst their more recent efforts were monotonous and turgid, originally offered an energised, hedonistic promise that the other bands of the decade were less capable of; Suede, Elastica et al were influenced by The Smiths, whose legacy is synonymous with the word ‘cool’ but, due to their deep-seated indie ideals and emphasis on moderation and intellectualism (‘This Charming Man’ featured complicated lexis in order to educate their listeners and bring various words out of obsolescence), they were hardly the most debauched of bands. Oasis, on the other hand, with aims that more resembled those of anyone on The X Factor (to be rich and famous) and a background illustrated not with literature but with lager and cocaine, made Definitely Maybe rich with ambition and confidence. This is probably one of the main assets lacking in today’s bands – they have little desire to leave a lasting impression on popular musical history. Does Plan B want to change British culture to something patriotic or intelligent? Doubtful. Whilst that was Blur’s aim rather than Oasis’s, the latter certainly bought into the Anglocentric angle as time went on. One only need see Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack guitar to ascertain this. Indeed, Blur’s admirable crusade to overturn the greasy-haired grunge onslaught that followed in Kurt Cobain’s wake (pun not intended) gave the era a sense of purpose, which seems unfathomable now we are in a period when the most revolutionary thing to happen in the charts of late was Rage Against The Machine’s prevention of yet another Simon Cowell-soundtracked Christmas. And that was nearly seven months ago.

Blur’s music stands notably for its precise placements in Essex or London, a la The Kinks, its third person narratives and, later on, their archetypal British campness (just watch the video for Country House). Indeed, many of the songs on Parklife and The Great Escape are essentially a musical version of the beloved British institution of Carry On films. And it’s this mash-up of all the wonderful things about music, from exotic lyrics and enviable musical prowess to humour and a venomous swagger, that makes me love the 90s. Sure, I love the 60s (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Velvet Underground), and the 70s and the 80s, but it’s the 90s that offers the most complete package for me. If modern music can take anything from my home decade, then surely it’s that even the most potent musical force en vogue can be toppled, as Britpop toppled grunge. And although Rage Against The Machine managed it last Christmas, it was an isolated incident – the mundane waves of tepid pop could-bes remain on top, whilst talented acts are flotsam and jetsam in their wake. Until the next Anglocentric revolution, I suppose I’ll just keep rereading my John Harris book, hoping that someone will bring salvation to both my ears and the music industry.