Into Ruins

post-phd thinking, writing, art, cartography, abstraction, Robinson Crusoe – risking appearing deranged – writing-as-thinking

Tidying the archive 3 – Landscape and Englishness


Today I’m thinking about Landscape and Englishness by David Matless.  My interest in this is partly just following my research-interest-nose with ideas coming up from Pennine Street (fingers crossed the article about it will be accepted and published) about the contrast, opposition, and co-constitution of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as categories, and Pennine Street as – well, it’s too neat to say as a metonymy or a little metonym-let for the nation, because that would need to be more precise, but the as-yet unclarified, non-pinned-down interest came up in that project.  More particularly I’m also interested in relation to the Robinson project, and want to go back and develop some of the material that I rushed over at top impatient speed durings parts of the phd. On the front, Landscape and Englishness appears to be one of those texts that comes out and then fosters and organises a lot of other work in connected areas that references that particular book, so I’m interested because it’s much-referenced and sounds like it will unlock for me some of what I might be interested in in terms of ‘landscape’ and ‘Englishness’ – my own Englishness in connection with Pennine Street, and Robinson Crusoe’s Englishness in RC which obviously has had rather more of an impact on things.

Seeking a definition from the author of what the book is about and what it does, we find: “The argument of this book is that the rural needs always to be understood in terms relative to those of the city and suburb, and approached as a heterogeneous field.” (1998, p.17)  Not a very gracious sentence but it establishes a concern with the rural as a category that must be understood in relationship with the urban, at the very least.  Matless also anticipates the problem that may come up in connection with a focus on Englishness: “Some might regard a preoccupation with Englishness, however critical, as rather insular, denoting a cultural myopia, and this may indeed be the aim of some studies. This book is happy to delve into obscure corners of English life, but it proceeds from the assumption that a definition of Englishness as insular or unitary would not only be undesirable but also impossible to sustain. National identity is regarded as a relative concept always constituted through definitions of Self and Other and always subject to internal differentiation.” (p.17)  I was bored after typing the first sentence of that.  But, we have a concern then with trying to define something (national identity) without making it into something insular, isolated, separated off, but in relationship, and as something that isn’t a neat, evenly textured thing but that is made up of differences, variation, difficulty while still constituting something nameable and knowable.

Brief discussion here of metaphors of ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’, though without going into how metaphor is functioning more particularly. Matless notes Martin Wiener’s discussion of Donald Horne’s idea here (how’s that for indirect?), that: “For Wiener, writing in 1980 with a view to a Thatcherite economic and cultural programme, the Southern metaphor had acted to frustrate an ‘industrial spirit’, and thus had helped drive Britain into decline.” (p.17)

“The search for England is based on social and aesthetic distinctions concerning how to look and who could see the country.” (p.66)  This quotable line comes in Matless’s discussion of the ‘motoring pastoral’, in which he talks about In Search of England by H. V. Morton, a text that “can be credited as establishing a motoring pastoral genre” (p.64).  As Kitty Hauser writes in the LRB, “In Search of England came out of a series Morton wrote for the Daily Express in 1926. It is an account of a journey around England in a Bullnose Morris, written ‘without deliberation by the roadside, on farmyard walls, in cathedrals, in little churchyards, on the washstands of country inns’. Its tone is jaunty, as the narrator leaves London and reels at whim in his two-seater down country lanes and past historic sites in search of an essential and timeless England.” (  Matless stresses Morton’s self-consciousness, the main reason why he and his account of Englishness shouldn’t be seen as straightforwardly nostalgic.  “As in Urry’s analysis of the ‘tourist gaze’, in Morton’s England everything is to be consumed as a sign of itself; the village as village Englishness, the pub as typical village pub.  Sites become archetypes, and if they are not archetypes they are not proper sites.” (p.67)  Matless doesn’t suggest that Morton is the first to do this, but says that he is significant for “carrying out this way of seeing on a national scale” (p.67).

And briefly some points about the Cockney, as a short-hand for the inappropriate and disrespectful visitor to the rural environment.  “A social and anti-social geography comes into play, with bad conduct presumed to emanate from the interior of the city.  Behaviour appropriate to a particular urban habitat is out of place in the English rural landscape.  The anti-citizen is labelled ‘Cockney’, regardless of his or her precise sound-of-Bow-Bells geographical origin.” (p.68)  And further, “The Cockney acts as a cultural grotesque, signifying a commercial rather than industrial working class whose leisure is centred around consumption and display. […] Cockneys in the country denote cultural transgression, although it is never conversely suggested that a rambler might be an offensive presence in a seaside resort.” (p.68)

Matless makes these points in a chapter dealing with the interwar years, 1918-1939, so I need to bear in mind that the idea of the East End and ‘the Cockney’ is a very different place to the one I see and live in.  Part of what interests me here is the gradation in worthiness that seems to be made among groups of people as to how, and whether, they are able to appreciate the ‘countryside’, how there is a worthier and more traditional category of the working class who seems to be more able to connect with the nostalgic, hidden kind of real England, while the Cockney becomes a figure for crassness, for not really seeing the ‘truth’ or authenticity of what’s there.  The ‘rambler’ is a figure connected with the worthier category of the working class, whose transgression can be figured as political (the Kinder Trespass) while the Cockney kind of transgression that Matless is talking about is established as vulgar, apolitical, inappropriate.




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This entry was posted on 2 May 2018 by in Uncategorized.
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