Tuesday, September 14, 2004

England, England

Started Julian Barnes’ 1998 novel England, England last night. Am up to page 65 but may unfortunately have to put it off for awhile, because I’ve just been given something else to review, complete with a shockingly unreasonable deadline. But even the little I read included a couple of very interesting passages that gave me pause.

The plot is an intriguing one. (Barnes is especially strong in that area at most times, though I think he sometimes meanders in the actual telling of his stories.) It involves the efforts of a pompous tycoon, Jack Pitman, to create an alternate, quick-fix England on the Isle of Wright. The idea is to provide a tourist spot where visitors can see England not necessarily as it really is, but as it exists in the popular imagination; a survey held to determine the Fifty Quintessences of Englishness throws up, among other items: the Royal Family, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the White Cliffs of Dover, Big Ben; the Stonehenge; and Thatched Cottages. Pitman and his team now set about recreating these quintessences for easy public consumption.

Naturally, such a venture has rich comic possibilities (small example: the Harrods replica is located inside the Tower of London replica!) but Barnes also makes many poignant observations about nationality, reality and imitation, and the unreliability of our memories. I was very moved by the opening chapter, in which a woman’s childhood memories merge in such a way as to make her believe that the reason her father left the family, when she was a little girl, was to hunt for a jigsaw piece depicting Nottinghamshire (to fit a puzzle showing the English counties).

At a more personal level, my own sightseeing experiences in the UK in May this year lead me to believe that Barnes’ central concept may not be that far-out. I took an eight-day coach tour around the country and while it was an invigorating trip on the whole, I was a little annoyed by the artifice that accompanied many of the tourist show-arounds. In the Shakespeare house in Stratford-Upon-Avon, for instance, the room where the Bard was supposedly born was obviously done up with recent furnishings meant to simulate the actual appearance of the room in the year 1564. The tourist guide herself gave the impression she had done a night-course at the Globe Theatre’s acting academy. With dramatic flourishes aplenty, she mimicked the movements of the midwife who had brought young Will into this world, and explained the precise nature of the delivery. (Bear in mind that many scholars today aren’t even completely sure the man existed in the first place!)

It was much the same story elsewhere. The whole country, at times, seems to be one big tourist spot and the sense of burlesque is all-pervasive. The shadow of the past is inescapable but even more inescapable are the attempts to jazz things up for a modern audience -- to give us 21st century tourists something we can instantly relate to.
In that context, here’s a relevant extract from the book:

"Now the question to be asked is, why do we prefer the replica to the original? To understand this, we must understand and confront our insecurity, our existential indecision, the profound atavistic fear we experience when we are face to face with the original. We have nowhere to hide when we are presented with an alternative reality to our own, a reality that appears more powerful and therefore threatens us..... Now there is the re-presentation of the world.It is not a substitute for that plain and primitive world, but an enhancement and enrichment, an ironization and summation of that world. The world of the third millennium is inevitably, is ineradicably modern, and that it is our intellectual duty to submit to that modernity, and to dismiss as sentimental and inherently fraudulent all yearnings for what is dubiously termed the ‘original’."

The above doesn’t apply just to the re-presentation of England. It’s to be found all around us. We see it all the time, for instance, in historical or period movies where the characters behave not the way they would have done in their own time but in proto-modernist fashion; almost as if they were winking slyly at the audience. You see, we were just like you are, except for the fancy clothes. (Thus the spectators at the Colosseum in Gladiator behave for all the world like football supporters at penalty corner time. Thus Jack the Ripper presciently tells a detective in From Hell, "Decades from now, people will say that I gave birth to the 20th century.")

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