THE NATION'S VARIETY
England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive Sue Clifford and Angela King Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2006, £30.00
ENTHUSIASTS FOR THE free market maintain that consumer capitalism offers choice and variety. Their arguments look increasingly unconvincing, though, as the same corporate chain-stores dominate every town centre and retail park, road-building projects obliterate familiar features and monoculture blankets the agricultural landscape.
Those opposed to this relentless process have tended to fight for what is rare, endangered or spectacular, but Angela King and Sue Clifford formed Common Ground in the early 1980s to champion the commonplace and encourage a perception of our surroundings which they termed “local distinctiveness”. They wanted to avoid the bureaucratic overtones of regionalism and to help everyone to work for the best environment – whether rural, urban or suburban – in which to live their daily lives.
King and Clifford have persuaded a wide range of organisations, notably the Countryside Agency, to concern themselves with ‘the local’. Although Common Ground has inspired the Local Heritage Initiative, it rejects all forms of kitsch, inauthentic heritage industry. The local must be open to what is new, with a sense of history at work in the present. While much contemporary change depletes variety, brutalism is not inevitable – so long as people involve themselves in caring, and fighting, for their home territory. The chief enemy is not change, but homogenisation, a form of cultural robbery.
England in Particular celebrates the variety which can be found in one small country. There is nothing nationalistic about it, and no hankering after some bygone arcadian perfection. Clifford and King are clear that our lives, and the places where we live them, are the creation of an inter-relationship between nature and all forms of culture, and they include the products of industry and technology among the treasures to be appreciated. The book is arranged as an encyclopaedia rather than a gazetteer, presenting its content in alphabetical order. This approach avoids conventional classifications, geographical groupings and strict chronology, and acts as something of a shock tactic, facing readers with improbable juxtapositions and obliging them to consider the items apart from their usual context. So we find cooling towers next to corn dollies, Quaker meeting-houses next to quarries, and Turning the Devil’s Stone next to the London Underground.
One cannot demonstrate the range of England in Particular without listing a selection of its 600 or so entries. For instance, natural history is represented by, among other things, alder, badgers, beaches, clouds, dew-ponds, earthquakes (of which England annually experiences three or four hundred), flint, moss, oysters, quicksand, shingle and winterbournes. Agriculture and gardening, the activities in which nature and culture most closely combine, feature in sections on allotments, Brussels sprouts, field patterns, gooseberries, lynchets, poultry, tithe-barns and ‘yan tan tethera’, the language of counting sheep.
Traditional rural culture appears in entries on dragons and giants, the Green Man, wassailing, and local rituals such as Gravely Rights Day, when Wiltshire villagers claim their entitlement to wood from a nearby forest. Common Ground has even created its own tradition, Apple Day, which dates back to 1990. “Traditions have to begin somewhere,” say King and Clifford, and theirs began in Covent Garden but is now observed in a multiplicity of venues, urban and rural. The entries on contemporary developments in country life include crop circles and wind farms.
This book differs from much writing on English life in its celebration of popular culture and everyday urban features. Common Ground has undertaken various projects to encourage the arts and this is no coincidence: if one of art’s functions is to help us see the familiar and apparently humdrum in a new light, then England in Particular can in its way be considered a work of art. Bollards, bricks, cabmen’s shelters, chimneys, council houses, manhole covers, prefabs, railways, raised pavements, warehouses, water towers and the ‘sunburst’ patterns in domestic design all take on a new interest, thanks to the social-historical perspective from which the authors examine them.
Given the average cost of a contemporary hardback, £30 is a remarkably reasonable price for a book of such
substance. England in Particular is strongly bound, appealingly designed, and printed on thick, smooth paper. It is generously illustrated with black-and-white drawings and etchings: the Black Dog is fearsome, the brass band is touching, and the portrait of a celery-picker captures the bleakness of fenland food production.
England in Particular has far more to offer than can be indicated here, and its love of the supposedly ‘commonplace’ will surely sharpen the perceptions of all who sample its riches.
Philip Conford is an Honorary Research Fellow in the History Department at Reading University.