“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.
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. 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’). 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Despite sticky mud, a near-death experience at the hands of The Vaccines’ fans and missing Brian May on stage with My Chemical Romance, it was off to the arena for another hard day’s gigging. Here are the bands I saw on Saturday.
NB: * denotes that I saw their full set.
Saturday, NME/Radio 1 Stage
Due to a pub ‘festival breakfast’ offer which took an hour to materialize (and even then was only comprised of sausage and chips), I only managed to get to the NME stage for the last 20 minutes of their set despite whizzing through the still-impenetrable mud as best I could (‘whizzing’ through mud equates to marching very quickly and trying not to fall over) to the arena, thinking “Please, please, please can they not have played ‘Get Away’ yet…”. And, to my absolute joy, the first full song I heard them play was the wonderful ‘Get Away’, which is one of the best songs I’ve discovered this summer. They sounded great, though I don’t know how much the relief/joy factor inflated how good they actually were.
2. The Pigeon Detectives
Saturday, Main Stage
Got back for their last few songs, which incorporated some of their biggest singles – ‘I’m Not Sorry’ and the like. As an owner of their first two albums, I’d come to expect that their singles were good, but their album tracks were generic indie fodder; I expected their singles to be well-performed and the rest of the songs in their set immediately forgettable. Right on the latter count and wrong on the former – their lead singer’s voice just didn’t sound up to it on the Main Stage. Very disappointing.
3. Big Deal
Saturday, Festival Republic Stage
I’d never heard of them, and was really only watching them to fill the wait before Seasick Steve came on, but they were your typical boy/girl softly-softly vocals duo that we’ve been seeing so many of recently (The xx, Summer Camp, etc) – easy on the ear, wispy on the eye and totally inoffensive, but probably not going to set the world alight. They released their debut album two days after I saw them, though, so at least I can feel cutting-edge now.
4. Seasick Steve*
Saturday, Main Stage
For a 70-year-old ex-hobo, he’s done incredibly well for himself, especially considering that he’s only broken the markets in the past five years. And considering his age again, his live performance is impressive, even getting a girl from the audience to come on stage so he could serenade her. Using a broom as an instrument on stage is awesome enough, but using it effectively is several levels above… Having watched him, it comes as no surprise that he’s become renowned for his live performances, though he was nearly overshadowed (quite literally) by the impressive four-person-high human tower which built itself near us.
5. Two Door Cinema Club*
Saturday, Main Stage
They’ve recently hit the big time (read: started being played on Radio 1 and as a result have reached the Monday morning masses), so I expected a large and enthusiastic crowd – which was just what appeared. They were alright – decent enough, interacting with the crowd, churning out tracks from their album – but the songs themselves all sound fairly similar. This means that, when there’s only really one song by them that you know (‘What You Know’), you think that every song is that song, which is awkward when you get excited and start dancing before realising you’ve never heard this song before. That is, until you’ve given up hope of them ever playing it and then recognise the opening chords and find yourself part of a huge outdoors indie disco.
So, to summarise; they were ok, but the songs themselves lacked something.
Saturday, Main Stage
I didn’t know most of the songs in their set – that is, until the last twenty minutes, at which point it went from a fun gig to a great one. I’m still at a loss as to why they were so low down the bill when they were at least the third biggest name on Saturday’s bill (for those who are more grey around the temples, like my dad, they were probably the only recognisable name), especially considering the bumper crowd and bumper audience reaction (i.e.: tens of thousands-strong karaoke party) to pop pearls like ‘It Must Be Love’, ‘Baggy Trousers’, ‘House of Fun’ and ‘Our House’. It definitely was worth the hour-long awkward feeling of “Do I know this song? I feel like I should know this song. No, Jen, you’re not just here for ‘House of Fun’ et al, you’re also here to learn their back catalogue… though I really do wish they’d play ‘It Must Be Love’ already… BAD JEN. I’M A FAILURE” through the more anonymous ska numbers at the beginning.
7. Cloud Control
Saturday, Festival Republic Stage [3rd row, stage-right]
We were really only there to get to the front for Smith Westerns, my first ‘must-see/get-in-my-way-and-I’ll-kill-you’ band of the weekend. [The other three were Pulp, Best Coast and Muse.] But we were early enough to see nearly all of Cloud Control’s set and, although I’d never heard of them before, I was very impressed. They’re a three-piece outfit with a distressingly attractive lead singer who specialise in indie folk – unlike Mumford and Sons, who I dislike intensely, they’ve got more interesting layers to their music (think church-like harmonies, oohs and being generally less lethargic) and are the lo-fi antidote to overproduced pop, plus they don’t have that bloody annoying banjo – and I definitely made a mental note to check them out when I got home. Their album is good, but it’s far more restrained sound-wise – they’re a lot louder and a lot fuzzier live. Very good indeed.
8. Smith Westerns*
Saturday, Festival Republic Stage [1st row, stage-right]
Smith Westerns, along with Best Coast, have been the soundtrack to my summer; their eponymous first album was on repeat when I was on holiday and lead single from their new album Dye It Blonde, ‘Weekend’, currently stands at a heady 6th place in my iTunes ’25 Most Played’ playlist*. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t play more songs from their debut album, though that’s just because I know the songs better. Hopefully most of the crowd (who didn’t seem to have a clue who they were or know any of their songs) will have felt about them how I felt about Cloud Control, and made a mental note to look them up; I thought they turned in a good show for their first English festival performance, translating their fuzz-toned sound well for the stage and, intriguingly, appearing to have a bassist without a face (though maybe it was lurking underneath his hair). I can only hope that those who hadn’t heard of them enjoyed it as much as I did…
9. The National
Saturday, Main Stage [5th row, stage-left]
Another ‘band-I’m-only-here-to-see-so-I-can-push-people-out-the-way-to-see-the-next-band-who-I-WILL-kill-you-if-you-get-in-my-way-for’. I haven’t listened to them much, though I’ve quite liked what I’ve listened to online, but I didn’t find them particularly inspiring to watch. Mind you, I wasn’t focusing too much on the performance; it was more of a tactical weave through the holes in the crowd to get as close as possible to the stage for Pulp. And in any case, I was way too excited about seeing them to really focus much on The National, though I think the majority of the front portion of the crowd felt the same way.
Saturday, Main Stage [3rd row, stage-left]
Well, this was my highlight of the entire festival. Even if I hadn’t known or particularly liked Pulp, I’d have still watched them; it’s universally agreed that their live performances are spectacular, and this one somehow managed to better my expectations. You see, a band can play their songs as fantastically as possible, but that’s not a substitute for wit, charisma and general star quality. The best performances are carried out by natural performers – like, say, Jarvis Cocker. A crowd that had been muted and staid during The National suddenly became hysterical as questions and phrases were projected onto a sheet in front of the stage, each designed to kick the hysteria up a notch; one of my friends thought this went on too long – it probably did – but, for the Britpop nostalgists who had forked out £190 on a weekend ticket just for this, it was the only way of making us more excited about it before they launched into the totally reunion-apt ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’.
A setlist mostly cobbled from the track listing of Different Class, with a couple chucked in from His ‘n’ Hers (including my favourite Pulp song, ‘Babies’) and one each from penultimate and last albums This Is Hardcore (the title track) and We Love Life (‘Sunrise’) was seamlessly threaded together in an oddly effective narrative structure by Mr Cocker, who punctuated the interludes with anecdotes, witticisms and number-crunching (namely, that it had been 17 years to the day that they had first performed at Reading and first performed a little ditty about class which just went on to be their biggest hit…). But that’s not to say that this is a great set just because of his banter; he – not forgetting the rest of the band, who may be overshadowed by their magnetic vocalist, but without who he wouldn’t be here – brings songs that often sound good but slightly flat to life. I’ve always thought that ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ (try typing that when you’re rat-arsed…) was let down because it took far, far too long to get going, but on stage, the long intro brings it a compelling atmosphere. By the time ‘Common People’ gets going, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to have any personal space whatsoever, but you couldn’t care less – Jarvis Cocker is thrusting on speaker only metres away from you, thousands of people are yelling the lyrics in unison and bouncing around like resting has gone out of fashion, and you’re as close as you can get to it being 1995 again. My idea of heaven, basically. [Though as you will soon read, it could have been even closer to being a big old Britpop party.]
11. The Strokes
Saturday, Main Stage
Someone at NME that decided that The Strokes gave a better performance than Pulp. That someone was clearly blind, deaf and crazy. That’s not to say it wasn’t a decent performance – their songs speak for themselves – but it just lacked something that Pulp come lathered in; charisma. Jarvis Cocker is, as I’ve pontificated on at length, a natural performer, whereas Julian Casablancas looks like he wants to be moping in a corner with a glass of milk instead of being on stage in front of thousands of people. There was nothing wrong with them, but they were totally outplayed by Pulp – mind you, most people would have been. That said, Jarvis ‘n’ Julian’s duet for The Cars’ ‘Just What I Needed’ was inspired. Definitely the highlight of their set.
I’m probably the only person who was disappointed that the rumour about The Strokes cancelling and being replaced by Suede was untrue. Not that I knew this rumour existed until I got home, but now I know there was a chance of this happening… well, it nearly made me shed a little tear. Ah well, they were good enough for me to not have a full on weep-fest…
A review of the Sunday coming soon. I actually mean the ‘soon’ this time, mainly because I’m beginning to forget what the bands I didn’t watch for ages were like…
*TOTALLY IRRELEVANT RAMBLE: Sandwiched between the full version of Suede’s ‘Stay Together’ (which, admittedly, is nearly three times longer than ‘Weekend’) and Laura Marling’s ‘Ghosts’, which is the only other non-90s song in my top 11. You may be surprised to learn that my #1 song is not a Britpop song. You may not be surprised to learn that the other eight songs in my top 11 are. Name them all for a prize [NB: my LastFM isn’t totally accurate in this, so don’t go consulting there].