Is this England? Ask Chaucer!

10 Jul

I’ve been re-watching This is England. Not the movie, set in 1983, but the Channel 4 mini-series it spawned: This is England 1986 .. 1988  .. 1990. They’re on catch up at All 4 and if you never saw them, find the space in your busy life to fix that. If you did  see them, trust me, they stand a second viewing; now more than ever as Remainer contempt and ire focus on a familiar target: white trash, a species too lowlife to be protected by political correctness.

There’s a reason for that. Advanced capitalism has less need of racism and other divisions than it once had. It is now possible – indeed, desirable materially as well as ideologically – to level the playing field for women, and for black, LGBT and some disabled people. The excluded still had to fight, yes, but many of their fights were winnable when, far from posing an existential threat to capitalism, the demanded reforms would update and give it new vigour. Ditto gains by organised labour a generation earlier, including those which in the pull/push of postwar boom and cold war concession gave academically minded working class kids a free pass out of the council estate and into the middle class.

What post-Keynesian/post USSR capitalism – aka  neoliberalism – can no longer do, however, is offer a meaningful stake to its burgeoning underclass. This inability, at the very heart of free market capitalism in a globalised age, has several implications. One is that Britain and other western democracies are perilously divided, another that the British Labour Party now teeters on the edge of irreversible split. But for present purposes I’m interested in a third implication: the psychological law under which a group whose plight we see as hopeless will be regarded, perversely but inexorably, with fear and loathing. It’s the way things work, the way winners manage whatever internal dissonance our indifference to losers provokes. You see it in Israel’s hardened attitude to displaced Palestinians. And in the way a Wolfgang Schäuble – amnesiac on how Germany owes its prosperity to chessboard moves formulated in Washington as cold war dawned on Europe – peddles the self serving narrative of hard working, thriftily teutonic protestantism bailing out a feckless Southern Europe.

I digress but slightly. Here’s a comment today, below a lightweight Graun piece on Brexit:

Do not hand over the UK to the psychopaths, racists, intellectually challanged [sic] …

This pro-Remain comment is aimed at the class portrayed, without sentimentality but with sympathy and even love, in This is England. With Chaucerian eye, Shane Meadows places the UK’s underclass, many of whom voted Leave on June 23, at centre stage. To call that unusual is an understatement. Britain’s white trash are as underrepresented in serious drama as they are overrepresented on Jeremy Kyle and oversimplified in TV soaps.*

Speaking of literary bigshots, Ian McEwan saw fit the other day to pen an ill informed Guardian piece on Brexit. Its lazy assumptions drew this from the doughty zerohoursuni, a chap we steel city scribblers have long viewed with guarded approval:

I voted Remain with peg on nose and mindful of Greece’s merciless shafting last year … of TTIP … of the growing role of the EU as political-economic wing of NATO in its eastwardly expansive provocations of Russia. But McEwan – many of whose novels I rate highly – has written a one sided piece with two major flaws. First, he targets the ‘dupes’ who swallowed Brexit lies to vote Leave but – as so many of the Remainers do – shows himself to be duped in an implicit confusion of EU with real internationalism.

Second, he devotes not one word to the fact – IMO more serious than Brexit itself – of the class and national divisions the result has exposed. Misguided or not, the demographics of the Leave vote suggest a howl of rage from those who’ve most lost out to neoliberalism’s race to the bottom. It’s not just McEwan. I know many people – good people I’m proud to call my friends – who live in spacious houses in leafy suburbs, yet deep down believe their enlightened stance on immigration, their cosmopolitan take on the EU, stem from superior intellect and greater humanity – rather than from leading lives of privilege in which they do not compete over low paid jobs, or scarce and overpriced rented accommodation. I’m 63 but have never known Britain as divided as it now is. The unravelling of the social contract in the face of globalised free market capitalism is what we should fear. At the side of this, Brexit is small potatoes …

Quite so, zerohoursuni. Quite so.

Update: a friend has sent a link to this brilliant piece in Le Monde by Paul Mason …

* Eastenders offers a huge canvas with near infinite scope for developing character, but this advantage is neutered by the need, greater than ever as attention spans plummet in the digital age, for constant action; a need easily gratified by the relentlessly adversarial dialogue Albert Square dwellers are renowned for.
I should add that at one level This is England is, as a friend puts it, “OTT tosh”. It certainly has its many moments of hyperbole and surreal comedy – as do Titus Andronicus, Millers Tale, Pickwick, Catch-22, Bonfire of the Vanities and many other rightful claimants to our literary respect. Whether T.i.E is or is not serious drama hinges not on its glorious absurdities but on whether it marks a serious and authentic attempt to get under the skin and into the minds of its protagonists. And on whether or not it treats – in its many moments of profound gravitas – themes like incest, rape, self loathing, racism and revenge in a dignified, penetrative, unflinching and above all honest way. On these criteria it passes with flying colours.

3 Replies to “Is this England? Ask Chaucer!

  1. d John O’Gaunt have voted Brexit???
    This other Eden, demi-paradise,
    This fortress built by Nature for herself
    Against infection and the hand of war,
    This happy breed of men, this little world,
    This precious stone set in the silver sea,
    This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
    Dear for her reputation through the world
    Engnd, bound in with the triumphant sea
    Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
    Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
    With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
    That England, that was wont to conquer others,
    Hath made a shameful conquest of itself

  2. Come the three corners of the world in arms,
    And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
    If England to itself do rest but true.

    If only

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