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to rebrand Britain on the strength of it.[1]  This initiative sought to reinvent Britain’s image overseas by rejecting outdated, heritage-based signifiers of British identity in favour of a more modern depiction of what Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, described as “a dynamic,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