The prevailing depictions of British national identity during the Olympics have been making me think a lot – as I’ve already started to explore here – about sources for the bottom-up, multi-viewpointed, multicultural narrative of identity that was famously staged in the opening ceremony. (If not in the closing ceremony – a much more standardised display of contemporary British pageantry, part of the same genre as all those pop spectacles celebrating the monarchy.)
Life history is a massive subject in its own right, but what interests me here is this emerging mode of imagining the nation as made up of millions of personal life stories with different start points, end points and trajectories, rather than having its character defined by rulers or statesmen or fitting within one homogenous ‘island story’.
Historical writing has most impact when it enters the public consciousness. Sometimes the historians themselves are the communicators, but it often takes artists, novelists and film-makers to carry out the translation. (Obviously this raises methodological questions about how we understand and represent the past, many of which are taken up in this essay by Robert Rosenstone; later this year I’ll be teaching on a module at Hull called Representing the Past in Film which invites first-year students to consider these.) That’s the case in many societies, of course, not just in Britain: with Serbia, for instance, Jasna Dragovic-Soso has shown how the arguments of Serbian revisionist historians in the 1980s, exposing silences and falsehoods in the official Titoist narrative of Yugoslavia’s Second World War, became widespread talking points at the moment when they were carried into cultural production by painters and popular novelists.
The scriptwriter for the Olympic opening ceremony, Danny Boyle’s regular collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, has revealed that the representation of destruction and shock at the coming of the Industrial Revolution was inspired by Humphrey Jennings’s anthology Pandaemonium: the Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (1985):
We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children’s literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings’s astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show’s opening section ended up named “Pandemonium”.
Jennings, a British documentarist who co-founded Mass Observation, compiled Pandaemonium as a collection of contemporary accounts of social change, as Luke McKernan explains:
Pandaemonium comprises texts from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators who wittingly or unwittingly document the great changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution. It begins with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, and anyone who saw Boyle and Boyce’s vision of Glastonbury Tor, from which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution will recognise its inspiration in Milton’s opening words.
(McKernan has the advantage of having been able to get hold of the book. It’s out of print, and since the opening ceremony second-hand copies have been being offered for £70-£200. The most recent edition seems to have been a Macmillan paperback in 1995; surely ripe for a re-issue for the autumn/Christmas market, especially if there’s no Peter Ackroyd or Norman Davies blockbuster this year.)
Another book which would surprise me if it hadn’t also been in the cauldron somewhere is David Kynaston’s multi-volume work in progress, Tales of a New Jerusalem(evoking Blake’s image/fantasy of rebuilding Britain which became the opening ceremony’s keyword), which will cover British history from 1945 to the year that Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, 1979. The first two volumes, using extracts of memoirs, unpublished diaries and (it’s that survey again) Mass Observation data, have already been published, covering 1945-51 and 1951-57. Kynaston’s mission statement echoes much that has been said about representing British history in the last two weeks:
It is this story that Tales of a New Jerusalem is intended to tell: a story of ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the seismic, of the mute and inarticulate as well as the all too fluent opinion-formers, of the Singing Postman as well as John Lennon. It is a history that does not pursue the chimera of being ‘definitive’; it does try to offer an intimate, multilayered, multivoiced, unsentimental portrait of a society that evolved in such a way during these 34 years as to make it possible for the certainties of ‘1945’ to become the counter-certainties of ‘1979’. (Austerity Britain (2007), pp. ix-x)
Multivocality and an openness to popular culture have been the dominant mode of British public history throughout my life as a student and researcher – note the BBC People’s War project, which resulted in an online archive of 47,000 testimonies, or the Imperial War Museum’s decision to start putting personal experience front and centre in its depictions of war (James Taylor, the IWM’s head of research and information, has a fascinating chapter on this in the forthcoming Languages and the Military anthology, edited by the leaders of the project I used to work for). The political and ethical commitments that brought about this shift would fill up many blog posts in themselves.
If Kynaston helped to revive the Blakean narrative of Jerusalem (language which I still feel uncomfortable about taking up into present-day political speech, given the ongoing contentions in the material Jerusalem and Britain’s part in that city’s history), his work also ended up becoming a foundation stone for one of the most characteristic words in today’s political speech – ‘austerity’. At the time of the first bank bailouts, Austerity Britain had just come out in paperback in the UK and had been longlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize for books; ‘austerity’ was part of a wider intellectual consciousness, and more available as a source of political/historical meaning than it otherwise would have been.
‘Austerity’, until 2008, stood primarily for the shortages and rationing that the British public continued to experience for several years after the end of the Second World War. In 2008, this invocation of the past was hauled into the present as a label for the savage reductions in government spending that the public was told it would have to accept as the price of stabilising the banks. The power of the myth of British solidarity and sacrifice during and after the Second World War ensures that using ‘austerity’ as a name for present-day policies evokes connotations of this earlier period.
The problem with politicians tapping into this mythology is that it can close off debate. By calling to mind this earlier national endeavour, the political use of ‘austerity’ today suggests: it’s natural to do this, there is no alternative, the short-term pain will lead to something better just as the austerity after WW2 is supposed to have done. The full comparison isn’t and can’t be so simple, especially since what characterised those years after 1945 politically was an expansion of the state rather than the rollback involved in ‘austerity’ today.
‘Austerity’ as used in the UK also chimes with contemporary leaders’ wider efforts to legitimise themselves and their policies with reference to national cohesion during and after the Second World War. The slogan ‘We’re all in this together’ was the title of the Conservative manifesto in 2010 and has regularly appeared in David Cameron’s speeches, including his strategy for cutting the deficit in 2010 and his response to the riots in 2011. Used in connection with the concept of private voluntarism and a ‘Big Society’ as Cameron’s preferred alternative to centralised public services, it mobilises the same myth of cross-class national cohesion, although the sociologist Paul Ransome has argued that it silences the role of the state.
One could argue further that the emergence of the welfare state in Britain after 1945 […] is simply a recognition that, despite the very high levels of local initiative and ‘pulling together’ which characterized war-time and post-war British society, intervention had to be, and could only be, managed at the level of society not community. This is why a new kind of state, the welfare state, emerged at that particular historical juncture. (Ransome 2011: 3.6)
Tracing the uses of ‘austerity’ is certainly not to say that Kynaston is responsible for austerity discourse or the ways in which it has been used politically. nor for Boyce’s and Boyle’s focus on the myth of a rebuilt imaginary Jerusalem. Rather, thinking about Austerity Britain and the New Jerusalem series helps to show how historical arguments, and ways of writing history, get across to wider audiences – and the broad range of action that they can inspire.
(Update: I’m pleased to say that Icon Books reissued Pandaemonium in paperback ready for Christmas 2012. Good thinking!)
I was amused to discover while putting together a ‘history of Yugoslavia’ syllabus that the cover of Sharon Zukin’s Beyond Marx and Tito: Theory and Practice in Yugoslav Socialism (1975) – an interesting book on Yugoslav society under the ideology of ‘self-management’, which is all the more interesting now for having been written before the country collapsed – looks for all the world like part of the David Kynaston series.
I really can’t wait for someone to do a David Kynaston job on Yugoslavia…