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“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to rebrand Britain on the strength of it.[1]  This initiative sought to reinvent Britain’s image overseas by rejecting outdated, heritage-based signifiers of British identity in favour of a more modern depiction of what Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, described as “a dynamic,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.

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What IS Britpop?

.     My mother asked me this question last week, squeezing a word in edgeways as I babbled on about my Britpop-related dissertation ideas. I was gobsmacked – how could she not know what Britpop was when she lived through it? (Answer: Concentrating on having and looking after children, apparently.) Seeing as it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question, and having quite a few articles on here about it, I’ll try to explain it. Possibly in too much detail, for which I apologise; it’s difficult to condense one’s favourite topic…
.     Having said that, if you’ve got a spare few days, more than a few pounds and are actually interested enough to spend both of those on enlightening yourself about Britpop, buy John Harris’s ‘The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock’. This is the book that turned me from being interested-enough-to-write-a-novel-about-the-era-but-who-are-Suede? to I-WILL-BUY-A-PARTICULAR-ISSUE-OF-NME-FOR-FIVE-TIMES-ITS-ORIGINAL-PRICE-ON-EBAY-AND-TOUR-LONDON-LOOKING-FOR-THE-PLACE-WHERE-SUEDE-HAD-THEIR-FIRST-GIG*. It’s well-written, ceaselessly entertaining and, in many places, proof that real life is truly stranger than fiction. Honestly, who needs Dickens and his obese prose when you can have a Mercury Music Prize-winning band recruiting a 17-year-old schoolboy from Poole to replace their erstwhile guitarist? (Or you could read this very good blog article by someone who was actually around when Britpop was. I don’t count being in playschool as being around when Britpop was.)
.     Onwards…

Music weekly Select championing Suede, the first important Britpop band.

When?: [Tl;dr rough answer: Spring 1992 – summer 1997.]
.     As with any movement, there’s no concrete beginning or end. Most estimates consider the release of Blur’s ‘Popscene’ as the advent of Britpop, so technically the 30th March 1992 – but of course Britpop didn’t just spring out of the woodwork fully formed. It had been percolating in response to a lacklustre British music scene at the time, which celebrated ‘shoegaze’ bands, and as a result of the explosion of Nirvana’s Nevermind with the music press’s resultant focus on American grunge. Personally, I regard Suede’s ‘The Drowners’ [11th May 1992] as a more important release than ‘Popscene’ in terms of garnering media attention, as it began a hype-snowball around Suede which brought the focus away from Seattle and back to new homegrown talent.
.     For your average Joe, who listened to the charts but didn’t read NME or Melody Maker – well, Britpop could’ve begun for him at various points. Public consciousness was originally invaded by Britpop at the 1993 Brit Awards [16th February 1993], when Suede caused a furore by performing ‘Animal Nitrate’, an ode to violent, gay sex and drugs (the name is a play on the drug ‘amyl nitrate’), then more prominently at the 1995 Brits [20th February 1995] when Blur won four awards as a result of chart-topping album Parklife. If average Joe really hadn’t been paying attention to the music scene, its most defining moment, the ‘Battle of Britpop’ [14th – 20th August 1995], took the British press (both tabloid and broadsheet) and even the po-faced TV news by storm. [The Battle of Britpop is explained here.]
.     The end point, again, varies. Commonly held views are that the release of Blur’s angular, Pavement-inspired self-titled album [10th February 1997], Oasis’s plodding misfire Be Here Now [21st August 1997], Radiohead’s OK Computer [21st May 1997] and, weirdly, Labour winning the 1997 General Election [1st May 1997] can all be seen as Britpop’s denouement. If you couldn’t bear to leave the party until the last fag-end had burnt out and shrivelled up, perhaps you’d consider Pulp’s album of angst and paranoia This Is Hardcore [30th March 1998] the very end of the movement. I’d say it ended with Be Here Now, largely because it was über-hyped, misguidedly, which warranted a mass-buying session from the British public before they realised it was kind of rubbish. Oasis were no longer the template for new bands to model themselves on, the other major bands had moved onto new styles, and the minor bands were cleared from labels’ rostra to make way for either more commercial bands, or more creative ones.

The infamous picture of Noel Gallagher hobnobbing with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street in 1997.

.     Who?: The tag of Britpop has been applied to the likes of Coldplay, Travis and Keane (though they’re more like ‘borepop’, if you ask me). In those instances, ‘Britpop’ refers to the far more vague notion of British pop music. Acts synonymous with the Britpop movement, however, are Blur and Oasis, usually seen as its main players. Other key bands of the time included Pulp, Suede, Sleeper, Echobelly, Elastica and butt-of-Britpop-jokes Menswear. Or ‘Menswe@r’, if you want to get technical about it. (You can tell it was the 90s, can’t you?) Although many of these have receded from public consciousness – including one-time ‘fastest-selling UK debut album of all time’ record holders Elastica – all enjoyed some amount of chart success and media attention, not to mention (in the cases of Blur and Menswear, anyway) a near-religious fervour from Smash Hits-reading teenage girls. As a joke from the time suggests (“What’s 40 foot long, has no pubes and goes “Aaaaaaah!”? The front row of a Blur concert”).
.     On the other hand, not all British bands of the mid-90s tapped into the Britpop market. Some, like Take That, were just your generic dancing-puppet boyband troupe, the sort that makes you forget there was a time before The X Factor; others, like Radiohead, shunned the pervasive sense of ‘Britishness’ (or, it’s been asserted, Englishness masquerading as Britishness) and the prevalent nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of the 1960s. The espousing of ‘Englishness’ resulted in British-but-not-English bands feeling alienated from the scene and developing their own sound, aspects of which opposed Britpop values – among them, Mogwai in Scotland (who sold ‘Blur are shite’ t-shirts in 1999, post-Britpop), the Manic Street Preachers in Wales and Ash in Northern Ireland.
.     Other important, non-musical figures of the time included Alan McGee, founder of the Creation record label which signed Oasis, and future Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair’s past as the lead singer in a rock band (Ugly Rumours) and fondness for rock and roll made him a VIP at various music awards, while his aides attempted to secure the support of Blur and Oasis to appeal to the younger electorate – leading to the famous ‘Noel Gallagher at 10 Downing Street’ pictures.

Noel Gallagher's iconic Union Flag guitar. Britpop is about more than just Noel Gallagher, but he's in a lot of useful Britpop-related images...

.     What/why?: I’ve already mentioned that it was a reaction to and against grunge and, to a lesser extent, shoegazing. The Britpop rhetoric centres on the promotion of a quintessentially English ideal that defines itself in opposition to the self-loathing of grunge, combined with a sense of nostalgia for Britain’s musical progeny. It doesn’t have to be the lyrics that reflect this; some bands used regional accents to steep themselves in Anglocentrism, while others used the prevalent imagery of the Union Flag in pictures or on their guitars (Noel Gallagher, cough cough). The nostalgia’s discussed in the ‘Influences’ section below.
.     There was also an espousal of the commercialisation of indie. Chart placings began to matter in the wake of the Battle of Britpop, with record companies becoming increasingly ruthless towards artists who hadn’t had a top 20 hit. In order to hit the mass market that was required for that yardstick of success, many artists compromised the experimental tendencies that would mark them out of the chart game. They instead sought ‘tunes the milkman could whistle’ (The Boo Radleys’ ‘Wake Up Boo!’ being a prime example) to ensure that Top of the Pops performance that would get them further recognition by the public.
.     Britpop has often been associated with the rise of lad culture and creation of ‘the lager-eater’, a bullish young male who enjoys stereotypically masculine pursuits like drinking beer and going to the football. As such, it’s become associated with rampant misogyny, although this is not necessarily true. Elastica were three-quarters female, while Lush and Echobelly were not only half female, but Echobelly’s singer and guitarist were rare examples of black women in rock, with their guitarist Debbie Smith upping the rarity factor by also being a lesbian. Justine Frischmann, lead singer of Elastica, also championed women’s choice to appear in lad’s magazines if they wanted to, seeing potential for women to empower themselves through it rather than adopting the raging-feminists-with-pitchforks discourse that it’s misogynist pressures that drive women to become involved in the adult magazine industry. It’s also been noted that Britpop’s female lyricists (Frischmann, Sonya Madan in Echobelly, Louise Wener in Sleeper) imbued their lyrics with more wit than many of their male counterparts, a forebearer of the ‘girl power’ that the Spice Girls would promote as Britpop derailed.

The Good Mixer, a Camden pub that was frequented by various Britpop band members during the 90s, as it is today.

Where?: London was the epicentre of Cool Britannia. Many of the places that became synonymous with Britpop were in or around Camden (The Good Mixer, The Dublin Castle), while various clubs housed Britpop’s key players at different stages of its life, from Syndrome in its gestation period to The Groucho Club as the bands and their entourages became more famous (Alex James, Damien Hirst and Keith Allen in particular became part of their furniture in 1995-6). Plenty of bands embraced Mockney accents or referenced areas of London in their lyrics.
.     Obviously, not everyone was London-based. Manchester, still clinging onto its Acid House-era [see below] ‘cool’ status, of course spawned Oasis, who made no attempt to hide their origins in either interviews or vocal style. Similarly, Jarvis Cocker’s strong Sheffield accent distinguished Pulp from the legions of Laaaahndaaahn-based bands, and the band never relocated from their native city. Liverpool, whose influence held strong in the shape of quasi-music gods The Beatles, produced fringe players Cast and proto-Britpop band The La’s, best known for classic ‘There She Goes’.

Brett Anderson with his icon, David Bowie. (There weren't any good quality pics of Damon Albarn with Ray Davies, so I went with this instead.)

Influences: The most obvious point of reference for Britpop artists was the British Invasion of the 1960s. The Beatles, Kinks, Small Faces and Rolling Stones were all mentioned time and time again by the artists and the press (The Beatles/Stones myth particularly being applied to Blur/Oasis during the Battle of Britpop). Oasis in particular pilfered from The Beatles and their respective members’ solo careers – ever noticed how much the opening of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ sounds like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’?
Closer in years to the 90s, David Bowie influenced Britpop’s forefathers, Suede, immeasurably – both in sound and style. (At 3:10 in their debut video, Brett Anderson looks exactly like Bowie.) Later, Suede’s more populist third album, Coming Up, sounded markedly more like 70s glam rock pin-ups T Rex. The Smiths were also a common port of call for influence, with most of the most important bands being inspired by Morrissey’n’Marr in their youth. This worked both ways, with Morrissey attending several early Suede gigs and including a cover of Suede B-side ‘My Insatiable One’ in his 1992 live shows.
.     Britpop can in some ways be seen as a reappropriation of the ‘acid house’, or baggy, scene, spearheaded by the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses. Centred in Manchester (the movement sometimes being called ‘Madchester’) and rising at the end of the 80s before being blown away by grunge, ‘baggy’ saw, ideals-wise, a move away from the threadbare indie ideal of the early 80s and a move towards capitalist mores. Musically, it was mostly a celebration of hedonistic excess and braggadocio, though The Stone Roses were far less dance-y and more soft-spoken than the Mondays. Oasis were especially influenced by the scene, though Brett Anderson was an unlikely Mondays disciple, while Jarvis Cocker recounts a rave-gone-wrong scenario in Pulp single ‘Sorted For E’s And Whizz’. Blur, on the other hand, were latecomers to the baggy party, with their debut album Leisure being released towards the tail-end of the period and hugely indebted to its indie-dance sound.
.     More obscure influences included Scott Walker, an idol for Pulp (he later went onto produce their swansong album We Love Life in 2001), while Blur’s Anglocentric ‘Life’ trilogy – Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and, analogously, The Great Escape – drew on ‘quintessentially English’ music hall traditions of the late 19th and early 20th century with B-sides like ‘Daisy Bell’ and ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’. Elastica referenced Adam and the Ants, Wire and The Stranglers as references, settling in court with the latter two due to blatant musical plagiarism from each. Indie legends The Fall were Albarn-, Anderson- and Frischmann-beloved, with Damon Albarn revisiting his love for Mark E Smith by collaborating with him on Gorillaz track ‘Glitter Freeze’ in 2010 and one of Suede’s earliest tracks, ‘Implement Yeah’, written while Justine Frischmann was still a member, being written about him (incorporating an anecdote about Smith calling Suede’s label’s manager, Saul Galpern, a ‘Scotch homo’). Finally, Graham Coxon’s well-documented love of independent ideals meant that some of his early influences included barely-heard-of indie acts like Talulah Gosh, The Cardiacs and The Pastels.

Spot the Acid House/Britpop artists on the V Festival line-up! BRITPOP LIVES YET!

Consequences: The aftermath of Britpop saw a move away from the ‘Oasis-by-numbers’ everyman music that 1996 had nurtured, and towards more intellectual bands like Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers. (Not to be elitist, but can you imagine Oasis singing a lyric like “Libraries give us power”?) The commercialisation of alternative music continues to affect perceptions of success; although independent artists are flourishing in the age of the internet, you can’t read NME these days without at least one band bemoaning the ‘death of rock’ based on the lack of singles chart influence that rock bands have. Several long-running music publications, such as Select and Melody Maker, closed after Britpop’s heyday due to falling sales, and even now, indie harbinger NME is reportedly facing crisis for the same reason.
.     As for its legacy, a second wave of Britpop emerged in the mid-00’s, with the Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys becoming incredibly successful. Attempted Britpop revivalists, Viva Brother, weren’t as lucky last year and ended up being reviled by, well, pretty much everyone, leading to their split earlier this month. The current trend for reunions means that many of the original Britpop bands – Suede, Blur, Pulp, Shed Seven, Dodgy – are riding high on festival line-ups again this year. Yet, even as a Britpop-lover, I’ve found myself wondering if this nostalgia is strangling opportunities for new artists to get themselves heard. How many people are going to festivals this year so they can watch The Inspiral Carpets?
That said, the finest albums from the period continue to do well in ‘Greatest Albums Ever’ lists in magazines, especially Definitely Maybe, Dog Man Star, Parklife and Different Class. Oasis’s seminal sophomore album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, meanwhile, remains the third biggest-selling album in the UK of all time (though, given Adele’s 21’s glory, for how much longer…).
.     You may not agree with the overt patriotism or the accusations of sexism within the movement. But as someone writing in the 2010s, when soulless dance tracks wind round the singles chart like poison ivy, the thought of a bygone era where people got seriously het up over which rock song would top the chart is a pleasant daydream indeed. It’s only been relived in recent memory by Rage Against The Machine’s Christmas #1 victory over Joe McElderry in 2009, and wasn’t that bloody exciting?

*Tragically, I did just that earlier this month. It involved going up to Hampstead Heath and wandering around for ages, either because Google Maps’ instructions are over-complicated or because I’m a terrible navigator. (You decide.) Incidentally, here is the place in question. It was called The Sausage Machine at the time:

SUEDE PLAYED THEIR FIRST GIG HERE. *fangirlgasm*