Thursday, 9 July 2009

Some day my plinth will come

This morning I woke up to an email from a splendid lady called Daisy who had just been given 24 hours notice that she was to appear on the Trafalgar Square plinth for an hour. She told me she'd like to tell people about Real England and could I send her a few words. I did, though I don't know whether they got there on time.

But more power to Daisy! Here she is doing her piece. I've done a good few public events in my time, but nothing this intimidating. I'm very impressed.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Nor shall my sword

A month or so back I received a curious email from the Royal Court theatre in London. They were preparing a new play centred around the changing nature of Englishness, and in particular the English countryside. Would I like to come in and talk to the cast about Englishness, what it means to me and what it might mean to them?

It was obviously too good an invitation to turn down, espeically when I discovered that the cast includes not only MacKenzie Crook but also the brilliant Mark Rylance, who I have worked with before on a theatrical project that is possibly still brewing. So in I went, having read the script, and we had a great conversation about today's England. I hope they found it useful; I certainly did.

Anyway, the play - Jerusalem - begins its run this Friday, when I'll be in the audience. I haven't seen it yet, obviously, but from what I know and have read it promises to be something well worth seeing. What really struck me about my conversation with director and cast was how the whole idea of Englishness as a previously 'forbidden' identity is increasingly being reclaimed (see, for example, what Crook says in this recent interview). If you can get a ticket, I'd recommend it.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Idle pleasures

Another day, another book launch. Yesterday I was swanning around in Soho at the launch of the latest issue of the Idler, which was combined with a seminar on how medieval economics can save the world. Met some brilliant, eccentric, inspiring and radically idle people over pigeon pie and ale. The Idler's editor, Tom Hodgkinson, is a terrific man - a kind of slimline Chesterton for the 21st century, and if you've not read any of his books I'd recommend them. As practical manifestoes on how to free yourself from the slavery imposed by 'the Thing', they can't be beat. They're also very funny.

Anyway, the latest issue of the Idler, entitled 'Smash the System', is out now, and includes an essay by yours truly on the need to revive our ancient English tradition of getting angry and staging abortive revolutions. It seems particularly pertinent now. Also there is much other excellently thought-provoking stuff, perfect for a revolutionary summer. The Idler is typeset and created by the same team who have produced my Dark Mountain manifesto. Hopefully both will be equally influential.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Caught by the river

Last week, just before I had a few days off on the south coast, I attended the launch of a new book, Caught by the River: a collection of words on water. It hardly needs me to plug it, since it has been all over the media in the last week or two, but suffice it to say it is a collection of musings on our relationship with this island's rivers, written by a fragmentary collection of individuals from journalists to rock musicians, via salmon-tickling lords and creatively-inclined teachers. Oh, and I wrote something for it, which is what I was doing there. And the illustrations are beautiful.

This is the etching which illustrates my piece, which is about the wonders of the upper Thames. Anyway, I'd urge you to get hold of a copy of this book if you have any interest at all in rivers, swimming, fishing, Jarvis Cocker's childhood, how to tickle a trout or just reading some fine writing about the best of our urban and rural waterways.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The South Bank

For anyone who's at a loose end in London on Wednesday evening, I'll be speaking about Real England and the issues around it at the Southbank Centre. Should be an interesting discussion. Watch out for the promised tube strike though...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A vote for England

These are the first elections to be held since Real England was published. Everywhere I go, people ask me 'what can I do?' about the many issues highlighted in the book. There are many answers to this, but clearly the ballot box must be at least one imperfect part of the solution, if there is one.

The problems I highlight in the book are many, but they come down in essence to the erosion of independence, community and character in England. This stems, in my view, from an over-mighty state-corporate machine, which crushes the life out of the individual and the community, out of spontaneity and creativity, in the name of growth and shareholder value and state power.

Voting is a deeply imperfect method of changing anything, especially in this sclerotic democracy where very few of our votes actually count. But what voting can do, especially in elections like this one, is send a message: a message about what you don't like as much as what you do. Millions of people will be doing this today, because since I wrote the book the machine has begun to cough and stutter and reveal its many flaws. People are furious and will be out there in droves showing it. These are, in my view, exciting times. I love watching the government collapse, and the banks, and the system they prop up, because out of the chaos of a failed system may come something better, if we choose to make it happen.

This time around, in protest at the very existence of what I increasingly regard as an illegitimate system, I was tempted not to vote at all; to state my case by refusing to be involved. But lately I have changed my mind. I think that today's ballot, especially as some of it is under a PR system, gives us a great opportunity to express our anger about what is happening to England at the hands of the machine.

So I have just been to vote. And I thought it might be interesting to some people to lay out how, and why.

Firstly, I obviously didn't vote Labour. I want this party obliterated at the next general election for its many crimes against England in particular and the UK in general. For a decade of toadying to corporate power, a decade of insane over-regulation, a decade of criminalising dissent and spying on its own people, a decade of illegal wars, a decade of crushing local democracy and local initiative, a decade of over-centralisation, a decade of anti-English constitutional change, a decade of rising inequality, a decade of public service privatisation, a decade of... well, you fill in the gaps. Anyone voting for this shower this time around would have to be criminally insane or in their pay.

Then there are the Tories. They make nice noises about decentralisation of power, which I am genuinely intrigued by. They have a vague and unsatisfactory answer to the 'English question' created by devolution; but at least they have one. Environmentally, their policies are actually pretty good in some areas. They talk about saving the English pub, which I'm always a sucker for. If they win power at the next election, they probably won't be any worse than Labour and may in some ways be better.

But ... they're still Tories. What that means is that a love of the global corporate economy is deep in their bones; even deeper than in the bones of NuLabour, if that is possible. I can't see a cabinet full of millionaire, expense-fiddling Etonians reining in the City. I can't really see them giving away significant power either (Labour said the same before they got into government.) More likely I can see a clean passing of power from one Establishment party to another, and most things carrying on as before. No thanks.

So we come to the Lib Dems, the one mainstream party that genuinely impresses me at the moment. On civil liberties, a key issue, the Lib Dems have been really impressive and genuinely principled. If they got their hands on power I think we could expect a roll-back of the database state, and also constitutional change. We could also expect PR for Westminster, which would be great. They've been good on green stuff and local democracy for quite some time.

And yet ... Nick Clegg is a shameless schmoozer who is taking his party further and further to the corporate right at precisely the wrong time. And then there's Europe. I am deeply suspicious of the EU, because I am deeply suspicious of any body which centralises political power, particularly when it does it without the permission of the people whose power it is centralising. The Lib Dems are gung ho supporters of further EU centralisation, and for me, though I am not anti-EU in principle, that's precisely the opposite of the kind of localisation of power I want to see and which England needs.

I also think that, at this time in history, what is needed is a big showing at the ballot box against the political establishment. If things are going to change in any significant way - always a long shot - the political classes need to feel that the voters are completely rejecting them. Only that will they be forced to rethink their direction of travel. We should all be voting for the kind of party which the political and media establishments dismissively refer to as 'fringe.'

There are, of course, a clutch of such parties which claim to speak for England. Firstly, there's the BNP, which despite its name is mainly an English party; it builds its key support on anti-immigrant sentiment and there are very few immigrants in Scotland and Wales. The only justification for voting for one of the 'big three' today, in my view, would be to keep the BNP out of the European Parliament. Despite this, they may get some MEPs. The traditional reaction of the left to the BNP is to jump up and down and scream 'fascist', but I think a more mature response is required. Not necessarily to the party itself, which is genuinely nasty and whose vision for the UK is one of apartheid and racial conflict - but to those who may vote for it.

If tens of thousands of people vote BNP today it will not mean we suddenly have tens of thousands of neo-Nazis in England. It will mean that people feel their concerns are being ignored by all the establishment parties. Those concerns will be about identity and power- about large numbers of immigrants at a time of economic stress, about a multicultural model which is widely unpopular, about what capitalism does to working people, about the fact that 'nobody speaks for us' - the refrain you hear time and time again all over the country and which today may even make Nick Griffin an MEP. That would be a grim result for all of us, but if it happens our reaction to it should be to ask why so many people in England feel so cut off from, and so unheard by, the political elite that they are prepared to vote for a racist party to make their point heard.

There are other right and far-right parties out there who claim to speak for England, or Britain, too. There's UKIP, which wants us out of the EU. UKIP are not a racist party, and a few of their points about Europe are well-made - not least our lack of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which democracy demands. But they are blazer-wearing reactionaries whose ranks are swelled by some dodgy characters and whose expense claims don't stand up to much scrutiny despite their anti-establishment pose. Then there are the English Democrats, who for a while looked promising. This is an non-racist English nationalist party dedicated to creating a parliament for England. They're a bit too right-wing for me overall, but nonetheless I could perhaps have seen myself voting for them because on the big political picture in England they are often broadly right. Unfortunately it seems that the party is run by some very stupid people who seem to find it perfectly acceptable to make alliances of convenience with racists for electoral gain; so they've blown it.

So who did I go for? Who's left?

Well, I voted for two different parties today; not my original plan, but I changed my mind when I got into the booth. Tempted though I was to vote for the Roman Party, a local one-man operation whose slogan is 'Ave!' and whose policies may or may not include compulsory togas, in the end I voted at the local elections for the Greens. I've voted Green for years and was once a member. They're not perfect; they are swinging a bit too far to the fringe left for me, and I am queasy about their gung-ho support for onshore windfarms and their enthusiasm for English regional devolution rather than an English parliament. But I know the local candidates and I know that the Greens deliver at local level. Perhaps most crucially, the Greens stand for the kind of deep devolution of power to local people that would solve a lot of the problems I highlighted in Real England.

In the Euro elections I intended to vote Green too. But I when I got there I did something eccentric. I decided I wanted to register a protest at the continual and unasked-for centralisation of the European Union. I like the European project, in principle; I like the idea of a union of independent nations working together. But I don't like what the EU has become: a behemoth which has taken powers from independent nation states (for which we can't blame the EU itself but our own politicians) and used them to strip-mine the oceans and the farmland, bombard us with absurd over-regulation and hand too much agency to the global corporate machine. So I found myself voting for a new lefty alliance called No2EU Yes to Democracy, which aims to highlight these things. I don't know if that was the right decision or not, but know I want to say something firm about the need for a relocalisation of power and that was the way, this time around, that I chose to say it.

I'd be interested to hear what others voted and why, or even if.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

What am I to think about this?

From today's Amazon ratings. Should I be proud or ashamed? Answers on a postcard please.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The paperback arrives!

This week, the small format paperback of Real England is published. It looks great, and if you don't own the book already, there is really no excuse now. Not least because it's half the price it was before.

And if you still need persuading, maybe today's excellent review in the Guardian will make your mind up. It certainly made my day. How's about this for an opening paragraph:
I occasionally say of a book that it is important, and that everyone should read it; this time I say so more emphatically than ever. I would like Gordon Brown to be strapped into a chair and have it read to him. And not let out of it again until he has given Paul Kingsnorth a powerful position in government.
Can't see this happening, I must say, and I think it would be a pretty suicidal career move anyway (though I wouldn't say no to the allowances.) But it's the thought that counts. And this thought is even better:
Kingsnorth follows in the tradition of Cobbett (who first identified the crushing of the spirit of place by the impersonal and often corrupt rapaciousness of the profit motive as "the Thing") and Orwell, united by a love of ordinary humanity.
I shouldn't be boasting really (it's not very English) but I've waited fifteen years to be compared, even fleetingly, to Orwell, and it probably won't happen again. So what the hell.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The reverse curse of Real England

Over the last few months, I've had occasion to report some good news stories about some of the campaigns featured in Real England. Now, two more developments are beginning to make it look like a trend. It seems that featuring in the book bestows on a campaign a reverse curse; a weird kind of gypsy blessing. It's starting to look like more than a coincidence. I mean, look at the evidence:

Queens' Market
I wrote in Real England of the campaign to save this ancient, diverse street market in east London from predatory developers. Yesterday, I was told that London's mayor, Boris Johnson, has turned down the developers' planning application, against all expectations. The campaigners are understandably thrilled.

The pubs of England
Years of determined campaigning by landlords, some of them featured prominently in Real England has led, this week, to a damning parliamentary report which recommends the government takes action against the power of the Pub Companies which are driving so many pubs to the wall. Just watch those share prices plummet ...

Castlemill Boatyard
Oxford's last public boatyard has successfully fought off two advances by developers since featuring in the book. Now locals hope to buy it for the community.

Sheringham vs Tesco
Despite the fears I wrote about in the book, one of the last towns in England without a superstore has comprehensively rejected the advances of Tesco.

Saving Chinatown
A fierce campaign by residents and shopkeepers put paid to an attempt at creating a 'Chinese themed shopping mall' that wouldn't have involved any actual Chinese people.

Now we just have to hope that the wider trends start to be counteracted. A tougher battle, that one, but with global recession and the ongoing collapse of parliament, everything is starting to look possible after all...

Friday, 17 April 2009

Climbing the Dark Mountain

Over at my blog, I am announcing the launch of a new literary project - or perhaps challenge. Come and take a look.

Monday, 6 April 2009

I am a Champion of England

Odd things are happening to me on a regular basis right now. Fresh from my appearance on Richard and Judy, I have now been nominated as a 'Champion of England', in a nationwide contest to find and reward someone who is working in their own way to champion all things English.

Now, I'm not sure whether I would be a worthy winner or not, but it's very nice to be recognised. What happens now is that all the nominees are put before the public's stern gaze, and the one who receives the most votes is named, on St George's Day, of course, as the winner. Oh, and the beer company Bombardier, whose idea this all is, hopes that it sells more pints as a result.

I think this is a great idea and, myself aside, there are some great unsung people being nominated. I'd strongly recommend that you go to the website and vote for your favourite, whether it be me or anybody else. Press the buttons on your keypads now.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

I cut my own legs off ... and I've never been happier

Apparently, that was the title of one of Jerry Springer's shows, back in the day. I only mention it because last night I found myself sitting on the famous Richard and Judy sofa, with Jerry (we're now on first name terms) and some other people too unfamous to mention, talking about St George's Day. It was a pre-recorded thing which will be going out on R&J's show on Monday 20th April, I'm told. That's three days before St George's Day, for those of you who haven't been paying attention.

This would be slightly more exciting if the duo were not these days consigned to an obscure satellite channel, but nevertheless ... it's only a few weeks since I was being interviewed by John Humphrys on Today about canals. Clearly I have arrived, in spectacular fashion. John Humphrys and Richard Madeley in one short month: what more can a man expect to achieve in his life? From here on, my existence is surely going to be a series of dark, empty anticlimaxes.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

English liberty: still with us?

George Monbiot writes interestingly today in the Guardian about the need for an English parliament. And I don't just say that because he mentions me.

It's good to see people on the left picking up on what is generally (and wrongly) assumed to be something of a 'right wing' issue. As George points out, it's actually an issue of democracy for the people of England.

I'll be speaking on this and doubtless some other things in ten days at the Convention on Modern Liberty, a day-long event which I reckon would be worth a visit if you're nearby. Might see you there.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Conversations about England

Gareth Young, who has been working for years to alert those in power to the biases in our current constitution, in which England is the only UK nation without a political voice, has just launched a campaign for an English 'national conversation' on the subject. Why? Because:

In Wales the ‘All Wales Convention’, a cross-party initiative, is looking at extending legislative competence to the Welsh Assembly. In Scotland the SNP Government is conducting a 'National Conversation' to enable the people of Scotland to ‘decide Scotland's constitutional future’, with the aim of bringing forward a referendum on independence or enhanced devolved powers. And alongside the Scottish Government’s initiative there is the ‘Calman Commission’, a unionist cross-party consultative body, tasked with reviewing the present constitutional arrangements to enable the Scottish Parliament to better serve the people of Scotland (within the union).

Not to be outdone by the peripheries the government at Westminster has launched a 'Governance of Britain' initiative to ‘help us define what it means to be British’, an initiative that may well result in a British Bill of Rights and various policies to strengthen our feeling of Britishness.

But what about England; what about our feeling of Englishness? Unlike the other nations of the United Kingdom we have been offered no national consultation, nor a referendum, on how we wish to be governed. None are planned, nor even proposed. Instead we watch as our partner nations in the Union are consulted again and again, with the indulgence of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, with a view to further referenda which may again alter the very nature, balance and working of the Union state.

So in light of devolution and the growth in English national feeling, how should England be governed?

It's a good question, and one that will be heard louder and louder, I think, in coming years. Its latest guise is on this website, with which Gareth is trying to reach the ears of our current masters in the Labour Party, notoriously unsympathetic though they are to English matters. I recommend that you sign up to support it. After the next election, we can then work on trying to make the Tories listen instead.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Or forever hold your peace

Andrew O'Hagan had a very interesting piece in Saturday's Guardian Review about the decline, if not the fall, of the English working class. The questions he poses could as well be asked of the English of all classes.

As a Scotsman, O'Hagan reflects on the absurdities of modern Scottish nationalism, which 'exploit[s] a ridiculous pretension: that their country is an occupied territory, occupied by a devilish England bent on colonisation.' But he goes on to observe that:
A good nationalism has to depend on a principle of the common people, on myths of a struggling commonality. It is strange that Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism and Welsh nationalism - for all their faults - are still seen by a great many as healthy, colourful movements, while English nationalism continues to make people think of football hooligans, Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley and the BNP. Why?
It's a good question, and I wonder often about the answer myself. Are we still wallowing in post-Imperial guilt? Has 'political correctness', whatever that exactly is, made us afraid of talking about 'nationalism', and even the English nation itself? And who are 'we', anyway? As O'Hagan's piece points out, the 'common folk' of England are not especially reluctant in coming forward with their views about England: it's only the bourgeoisie who find it distasteful.

O'Hagan comes, in the end, to the same conclusion I came to while working on Real England (a conclusion I lay out in its wider historical context in the next issue of the Idler): the English are too passive, too respectful of authority, still too willing to tug the forelock. Our past is studded with episodes of glorious resistance and rebellion, but they remain episodes. World-straddling for so long, who did we have to push against?

I've been reading a lot recently about the creation of England, back in the 9th and 10th centuries, for a project I'm working on, and what becomes clear is how 'England' as both notion and nation was forged in adversity. If this island hadn't been ravaged by wave after wave of Viking armies, 'England' might never have come about. Identity is forged through resistance. The Scots and the Welsh define themselves at least partly by what they're not, by what they're supposedly against: England. Some of their mythology of resistance is demonstrably false, but they make it work, for now.

But the poor English: what do we stand against? Speed cameras? Immigration? Taxes? Where is our fire? Why we can't we be more ... well, French? My view is that if we don't start burning soon we will have precious little left to fight for: 'England', in any meaningful cultural sense, will come to an end this century. It will have had a good run - 1100 years is impressive by any nation's standards. But what will we be letting it slip away for? What will replace it? A global mall, featureless and cultureless, open all hours, primed for growth. Who will we be? What, in both senses, will we be for?

G. K. Chesterton's famous poem The Secret People tried, nearly a century ago, to define the English in the context of the sweep of their history. Like O'Hagan, and like me, Chesterton was both entranced and frustrated by our inability to speak out. He hoped that this would change:
We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia's wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God's scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
Well, maybe. But how long do you wait for someone to speak before you conclude that they don't actually want to? How long before you conclude that it's fine to forget, that beer is indeed best, that Friday night outside All Bar One is all we really have to offer? O'Hagan seems to feel the same way:
One slant on the English would be to see their dim view of political upheaval as a good thing, a guarantee of the kind of individualism that makes for eccentrics and self-excluders; but silent obedience of the English working-class sort is more often antithetical to eccentricity. It usually comes out as a completely individual conviction that difference is suspect and resistance means trouble. The English don't say "what can be done?" - they say "what difference does it make?"
Indeed. And the answer is 'none, if you don't want it to.' This 'quiet, invisible business of the people being walked over, and saying nothing, and thinking that's just the way it is', O'Hagan calls it. Not all of us think that way. But I wouldn't bank on much changing any time soon, because, as ever, a lot of us do.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Shopping schmopping

Welcome to 2009. This is the year that Real England is published in paperback. There'll be more talks and events around the country to accompany this, of which more here.

In the meantime, some heartening news from the real Wales, where the response of some to the credit crunch and the ensuing demand that we all immediately go shopping is very cheering indeed. That's what I call direct action.