Sei sulla pagina 1di 8

JoLIE 2:2 (2009)

“WE ARE NO LONGER MEGA” IN ENGLAND, ENGLAND BY JULIAN BARNES

Laura Fernanda Bulger

University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, Portugal

Abstract

Long after the disintegration of the Empire, Britain faces religious and racial tensions within her social fabric, exclusion being the main complaint from people whose colonial heritage hardly embraces the concept of Englishness. Meanwhile, searching for the English national character has become almost an obsession among the subjects of Elizabeth II. In fiction, contemporary novelists, from Ackroyd to Byatt, have taken it upon themselves to question old assumptions regarding Englishness, a quest pursued before them by authors like T.S. Eliot and George Orwell, the latter much less enthusiastic over English identity than the former, curiously, a non British born citizen. In his novel England, England (1998), Julian Barnes joins the identity pursuit. His hilarious rendition of Old England, a mega touristic project envisaged by Sir Jack, a vulgar unscrupulous entrepreneur, can be regarded as a sharp criticism of what has been perceived, so far, as Englishness. In this paper, we intend to show how, through language and parody - in its “witty ridicule” sense, and also in its “value-problematizing form” (Hutcheon 1988: 94), Barnes questions cultural and historical myths passed on to the present. At the end of the novel, symbols of Englishness, such as the legendary Robin Hood, or the equally dubious Francis Drake, or the pastoral settings recreated to crown the May Queen might as well be figments of a national memory, as unreliable as the memory of the fading female protagonist, who no longer believes that innocence can be reinvented.

Key words: Fiction; Englishness; Julian Barnes.

Private English gardens may no longer offer security and delight to the gentility. Neither is today’s London, under threat of home-grown terrorism, the ideal setting for an aspiring young actor from the countryside who dreams of taking over the English stage to become a symbol of Englishness. West End glare has often been traded for diffuse spotlights of film and television studios and, if the actor makes it to Hollywood, he or she will be rewarded with leading parts and an aura of Englishness. It summons, if not the Bard’s mellifluous language, the unmistakable inflections of the old upper-classes, or the working-classes’ mumble, or a pithy utterance by a classless spy agent at Her Majesty’s service whose popularity has surpassed the most celebrated English sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. Literature and cinema, together with the televised serials of the classic Masterpiece Theatre, have done their bit to produce a stereotyped Englishness, keeping it alive in the

52 Laura Fernanda BULGER

imagination of millions of viewers, now that the Commonwealth of Nations is a faint reminder of a worldwide Empire where the “sun never set”. But, the facsimile begins to look like a weary caricature that hardly represents today’s England, a postcolonial hybrid society where peerage is as common as the commons. Therefore, the search for a national identity has made Old England turn inward, and fall into a kind of nostalgic quest that may unravel its origins way back to pre-medieval times. Glories as well as “burdens of the past” are dug up to make sure that every trace of Englishness is retrieved, be it genetic, mythical, historical or literary, from the indelible mark left on the land by the Anglo-Saxon saga of Beowulf and the Celtic legend of King Arthur and his knights; the Norman French aristocratic lineage; the tales by the father of “The Mother Tongue”, Chaucer, whose spontaneity the Bard did not snub at all; to the ancient folk-songs that bound the past to the present through patriotic scores played during a London Prom (Ackroyd 2002: 440-47). England’s most distinguished immigrant-writer, Joseph Conrad, a member of the great literary tradition, can also be remembered as a model of integration, although the “Homo duplex”, as Conrad called himself, might have denied it, 1 unaware, at the time, that multiculturalism would become a crucial strategy in postcolonial England. Needless to say that exclusion and discrimination are recurrent complaints from British-born citizens whose colonial heritage hardly embraces a notion as slippery as Englishness, often associated to Britishness through an entanglement of cultural and political relationships difficult to separate. However distinct, either concept was used both in the imperial home and overseas to extend the power of the metropolis as far as the colonial empire went, and Rule Britannia did go far and long enough to have left, for better or worse, its enduring effects inside and outside Britain. Neither Thatcher’s Big Bang nor New Labour’s Cool Britannia managed to cure the so-called postcolonial or post-imperial melancholy (Baucom 1967:184- 89) despite the brief euphoria over the Falkland’s re-conquest, or the renewed pax britannica, a set of political strategies meant to appease the different ethnic communities living in the UK. Nothing is left out in order to build up a national character, also in fear, perhaps, that mingling with the European Union continental partners may wipe out an identity made up of past successive migrations, compromised nowadays by the recent postcolonial population. 2 The membership in the European Union might have heightened a national consciousness among British people, confronted, these days, with a handful of directives from abroad. In addition, the nation has had to compete with former rivals, like Germany and France, for a major role in the

1 Giles Foden, “The moral agent” in Guardian (Books) 1.12.2007.

2 Richard Bradford (2007) describes the new wave of emigration to Britain, during the late 1940’s: “The majority were either people of African descent from the West Indies or from the indigenous populations of what had in the days of Empire been the Indian subcontinent and was, post- Independence, made up of India and Pakistan. Smaller numbers came from what had previously been African and South East Asian colonies, and although these groups of individuals might have had little else in common they were self-evidently different. They spoke differently and their physiognomy and skin colour were resolutely non-European.” (p.190)

“We are no longer mega”

53

European chess game. For many a British Euroceptic, the idea of having Brussels brought to London by the Eurostat must have appeared more like a continental take-over than an open door to the rest of Europe, the myth of John of Gaunt’s Island-Fortress (Richard II II, I, 4245), one of the earliest manifestations of Englishness, readjusting itself along the centuries to any situation perceived as a threat to British sovereignty and identity. Although the Empire is long gone, “Englishness is still tainted with imperialism,” says Dominic Head (2002: 119), who comments upon the effects of its loss on the mood of a nation that has gone ever since from postcolonial melancholia to oblivion. Fiction has also joined the tantalizing pursuit of a national identity, 3 discarding novelistic themes that were trendy once, like the pride and prejudices of the upper-middle-classes, or the struggle of a post-industrialized working-class against capitalist exploitation. In England, England (1998), 4 novelist Julian Barnes selects a variety of England’s icons to parody the notion of Englishness. The satirical language and humorous situations alternate with a self-conscious reflexive discourse in the first chapter, when the narration renders Martha Cochrane’s childhood recollections, and in the third and last chapters, when an aging Martha ponders her previous experiences as Chief Executive Officer at Pitco’s Group, the company owned by Sir Jack Pitman. By then, the former CEO had moved back to Anglia, a pre- industrial idyllic village where folks celebrated the May Fête and other delights of the pastoral world. Nostalgia sets in as Martha, a repository of old memories, muses over the fate of Old England, a nation that “once contested the primacy of the continent”, but is now “fatigued by its own history” (EE: 251-53). 5 Barnes’s “neither idyllic nor dystopic” novel (EE: 256), as the narrator puts it, might be read as “a kindly, quirkily patriotic view of Englishness” (Bradford 2007, 183), rather than a satire, were it not for “England, England”, the second and lengthier part of the book, which turns out to be a spoof of Old England’s institutions and traditions. In this paper, we will convey a few highlights in Barnes’s construction of a hilarious, though grotesque make-believe world, and of its creator, Sir Jack Pitman, a character drawn out of a Monty-Python sketch. His dubious beginnings and meteoric rise in the universe of high finance and peerage are objects of some speculation. Reported both as a “patriot at heart” and a “bit of a maverick” (EE:

30), Sir Jack’s reputation was worthy of the tribute carved on a Cornish slate on display in his office, where he was described as a great “innovator, ideas man, arts patron, inner-city revitaliser” (EE: 29). Sir Jack is also depicted as a shrewd, ruthless entrepreneur, owing to his pragmatism, or, as in the text, to his “roguish buccaneering style” (EE: 179) of doing business. In addition, he is known for his lack of “finesse and savoir” in dealing with delicate matters, a view expressed by

3 Graham Swift, John Fowles, Peter Ackroyd and A. S. Byatt are a few of the authors who problematize the idea of national identity by reconstructing the past in a type of fiction named by Linda Hutcheon as “historiographic metaficion” (1988: 105-123).

4 England, England was short-listed for the Booker prize in 1998.

5 The quotations in the text refer to Barnes, J. (1998). England, England, London: Picador.

54 Laura Fernanda BULGER

smooth talker Jerry Batson, his Consultant who, by contrast, is said to belong to the crème de la few” (EE: 35). As Pitco’s boss, Sir Jack behaves as a despot who humiliates his employees, having his yes-men and women jump at the snap of his finger. Martha Cochrane, who had Sir Jack spied on, only escaped being sacked by threatening to divulge his double less than respectable life as a family man. Martha and her wimp of a boy friend, Paul, one of Sir Jack’s lackeys, had gathered compromising information on their chief’s regular visits to Auntie May’s brothel, where he enjoyed playing the part of a small boy and was “nursed” by his favourite prostitute, while uttering wild baby cries like: “Titty!”, “Goo-goo-goo!”, “Naaaapy!” Fear of scandal made Sir Jack surrender to Martha’s blackmail. She was offered a position as CEO at Pitco’s where she would help him develop his plan to turn England, England into Old England. “England, England”, which is also the title of the novel, focuses on Sir Jack Pitman’s grandiose Project for an England theme-park, a quality-leisure resort built on the Isle of Wight, where Sir Jack would become Governor for life, only being succeeded, after his death, by his own replicas. The theme park would work as an antidote to the real Old England, which had become a gloomy kingdom by the third Millennium. 6 Sir Jack was determined to recreate “the thing itself” (EE:

59) on the Isle, that is, a replica of good Old England, thus, replacing the original, for which there was not much use any more. To sound out the expectancies of the Isle’s potential clients, Sir Jack ordered his Concept Developer to take a worldwide poll on the fifty top characteristics of England and Englishness. The survey showed a variety of landmarks, features and brand names, from Shakespeare to the Manchester United, even activities such as gardening, and psychological peculiarities like hypocrisy and emotional frigidity. 7 As a whole, it provided a long list of stereotypes, largely promoted by cinema, television and tourist flyers, pointing to a shallow view of

6 In Old England “inefficiency, poverty and sin” were on the rise, becoming an “economic and moral waste-pit” (EE: 202). Jerry Batson, who is no patriot, defies Old England’s pride by saying: “This is the third millennium and your tits have dropped, baby. The days of sending a gunboat, not to mention Johnny Redcoat, are long gone. We have the finest army in the world, goes

without saying, but nowadays we lease it for small wars approved by others. We are no longer mega. Why do some people find that so hard to admit? (EE: 39).

7 The results of the survey pointed to “Fifty Quintessences” the order of which went as follows: “1. Royal Family 2. Big Ben/House of Parliament 3. Manchester United Football Club 4. Class System 5. Pubs 6. A Robin in the Snow 7. Robin Hood and His Merrie Men 8. Cricket 9. White Cliffs of Dover 10. Imperialism 11. Union Jack 12. Snobbery 13. God Save the King/Queen 14. BBC 15. West End 16. Times Newspaper 17. Shakespeare 18. Thatched Cottage 19. Cup of Tea/Devonshire Cream Tea 20. Stonehenge 21. Phlegm/Stiff Upper Lip 22. Shopping 23. Marmalade

24. Beefeaters/Tower of London 25. London Taxis 26. Bowler Hat 27. TV Classic Serials 28.

Oxford/Cambridge 29. Harrods 30. Double/Decker Buses/Red Buses 31. Hypocrisy 32. Gardening

33. Perfidy/Untrustworthiness 34. Half-Timbering 35. Homosexuality 36. Alice in Wonderland 37.

Winston Churchill 38. Marks & Spencer 39. Battle of Britain 40. Francis Drake 41. Trooping the

Colour 42. Whingeing 43. Queen Victoria 44. Breakfast 45. Beer/Warm Beer 46. Emotional Frigidity

47. Wembley Stadium 48. Flagellation/Public Schools 49. Not Washing/Bad Underwear 50. Magna

Carta (EE: 83-85).

“We are no longer mega”

55

English culture and history. Imperialism, item number ten of the selected fifty “quintessences”, suggested, though, some awareness of the period when Englishness spilled over national boundaries to spread English civilization the world over. However, Sir Jack ignored the rise and fall of the Empire and concentrated on catchier, more lucrative concepts such as Robin Hood’s Myth.

Features related to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also discarded as if

a United Kingdom as such had ceased to exist in the Third Millennium. This

notwithstanding, the Project, which aimed at attracting thousands of gullible Visitors to the theme-park, particularly North Americans looking for their family roots, did become a huge business investment of “top dollar and long yen” (EE:

109), one of Sir Jack’s “pitmanisms”, or colloquialisms, underlining, here, the big tycoon’s greed. The survey prompted Sir Jack to have his advisory Committee 8 recreate a version of Old England by building copies of sites and monuments, re-enacting historical scenes, hiring low-cost labour understudies to pass for peasants, sailors, shepherds, and members of the Battle of Britain’s squadron. After the death of

Elizabeth II, and against the advice of the Committee, who preferred replicas to the originals, Sir Jack invited the authentic royal family to live on the Isle. At first, the Royals made themselves hard to get but, short of money and prestige in their real kingdom, they gave in to Sir Jack’s pressure. They signed a contract with Pitco’s, thereby their being bound to counterfeit a majestic smile and wave from the balcony of a half-sized replica of Buckingham Palace, known as Buck House, a regal appearance that brought Their Majesties big cash. Kingy-Thingy, the king’s nickname, a half-wit lusty man who spent his time chasing women, lived up to his Windsor genes by performing his royal duties with panache. He showed his “famous royal nervelessness” during awkward moments, put up with the Isle’s extravagant pageantry, learned the scripts handed

to him by writers, and was heard saying “Damn fine show” (EE: 166), as a kind of

grand finale. His Majesty, who pronounced “Gowd,” for “God”, and “frinstance”, instead of “for instance”, kept an informal dialogue with his new subjects, alternating slang words with a few obscenities. Kingy-Thingy and his wife, Queen Denise, fitted well into Sir Jack’s “bogus” kingdom, where vulgarity and kitsch were common. The Royals became “the country’s top cash crop” (EE: 144), as Sir Jack had estimated. Actors were paid to impersonate major legendary figures, from Lord Byron to Sir Francis Drake, and some female celebrities, like D. H. Lawrence’s protagonist, Connie Chatterley, Lady Godiva and Nell Gwynn. A self-proclaimed “Protestant-whore”, Nell had been the mistress of the Catholic Charles the Second; she was regarded by the Committee as the heroine of a “democratic story”, an eventual paradigm of the “third millennium family values” (EE: 99). The king, who imitated his ancestors, fell for the girl who played Nell, a dark Mediterranean beauty that resembled Bizet’s Carmen, the paragon of a loose woman. Asked by

8 The Committee consisted of several experts, among whom Dr. Max, a writer for the Times, under the pseudonym Country Mouse, who became the Project’s Official Historian.

56 Laura Fernanda BULGER

the management to stop harassing the young woman, the King evoked his royal status as a right to pursue his romantic pastime. However, Kingy-Thingy was forced 9 to leave the fake Nell alone and take a second-hand-copy, Lady Godiva 2, as his new extra-marital amusement. Robin Hood and his Merry men, number seven on the top “essence” list, were popular symbols of Englishness given the sympathy inspired by the outlaw Gang, who “stole from the rich, and gave to the poor” (EE: 146). Despite suspicions that transvestism and other moral deviations might have been rampant among the members of Robin’s Band, 10 a story that could upset the more puritanical Visitors, the Committee went ahead with the Hood Myth, which became the biggest hit on the resort. People came from all over the world to queue up by the Gang’s Cave, and watch their archery skills and brawls. However, tired of their diet of ox, the meal cooked by Friar Tuck for the benefit of the tourists, the Outlaws began poaching in the nearby heritage parks where a variety of rare animals kept disappearing. To stop the Gang’s robbery Martha had them ambushed by an army of stuntmen led by a private fitness trainer. Outsmarted by Hood’s men, though, the army intervention was a flop and Martha’s career as CEO ended there. Unaware of what was happening, the Visitors applauded Robin as he came out of the Cave, thinking that it was one of his triumphs over the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. The fake Robin Hood and his Band had taken their act quite seriously becoming real thieves and making all sorts of demands to satisfy their wildest appetites. 11 A copy of “scruffy” Dr. Johnson also joined the cast of English personalities. He was the intellectual resident, and host of the Dinner Experience, a special programme for those keen on a taste of traditional English humour. But soon the Visitors began complaining about Dr. Johnson’s personal hygiene, bad manners and “asthmatic gasping”. Even worse, he was accused of making “racist remarks about many of the Visitor’s countries of origin” (EE: 208). More authentic than he was expected to be, Dr. Johnson’s replica had not lived up to the reputation for which he was paid, and was fired, the job for an English humorist remaining open. Given their respective eccentricities, wits like Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw,

9 The King backed down after Martha threatened him with a possible republican coup, should he continue pestering the fake Nell: “… if the monarchy got too big for its boots, they could always draft in Oliver Cromwell for a bit” (EE: 189). 10 According to Dr. Max, Hood and his Gang might have belonged to a “homosexual community”, their “sexual orientation” justifying their “status as outlaws”. The historian also generalizes about the sexual habits involving the pastoral communities, where females were greatly outnumbered by males: “same-sex practices in a non-judgmental ethos are the historical norm. Such activities would involve a measure of transvestism sometimes ritualized, sometimes, well, not. I should also wish to record – though would quite understand if the Committee declines to develop it as a concept – that pastoral communities of this make-up would certainly have indulged in bestiality” (EE: 150).

11 Ted Wagstaff, who acts as Martha’s adviser, tells her that Robin’s major complaint was not having a sexual partner: “The present state of play is that Robin’s complaining that it’s unfair and unjust and a crime against his manhood that he hasn’t, if you’ll pardon my language but it’s his, he hasn’t had a shag in months” (EE: 224).

“We are no longer mega”

57

or even Noel Coward might be too much of a liability, if hired as hosts of a Dining Experience. Otherwise, England, England offered all the amenities and services money could buy, from a “’ploughman’s lunch’” on the top of the White Cliffs of Dover to a high tea at Harrods’s, the shop inside the Tower of London, where solicitous Beefeaters pushed shopping trolleys for the clients. Unlike the stagnant economic and social system in Old England, on the Isle there was no unemployment, no prisons, no police, and socialized Health Care had been replaced by the American model, which made everyone take out medical insurance. The replica was indeed far better than the original, 12 following the theory preached by the academic Sir Jack had imported from France to lecture on the “post-post-modern” make-believe world of the third Millennium, where, as in England, England, nothing could be taken for real, the simulacrum having replaced the authentic. Like an illusionist, the Frenchman drew “doves from his sleeve and a line of flags from his mouth” (EE: 53), using the collective “we” to explain his avant-garde theories: “in the modern world we prefer the replica to the original because it gives us the greater frisson” (EE: 54). The explicit reference to the French post-modern circuit of intellectuals and other luminaries, 13 including Baudrillard, the theorist of the reality effect in modern-day consumer society, is one of Barnes many ironies. As a novel, England, England, a world of shady characters, past and present, who act under false pretences in their self-interest, is much more than a parody of Englishness, 14 the symmetrical structure of the book reinforcing some of the main themes that run through its three chapters, like authenticity, imitation, deceit and identity. In the first chapter, young Martha felt that she had been deceived by her father, who abandoned her taking in his pocket some pieces of the jig-saw puzzle she was building, which prevented his daughter from completing the map of “her” England. Martha never recovered from her first deception, as if, not only the pieces, but also part of her identity were also missing. In the third chapter,

12 Kathleen Su, an allegedly neutral writer who visited England, England “at the expense of the Wall Street Journal”, raved on life in this brave new world: “Here, in place of the traditional cold- fish English welcome, you will find international-style friendliness. And what about the traditional chilly weather? That’s still around. There is even a permanent winter zone, with robins hopping through the snow, and the chance to join the age-old local game of throwing snowballs at the bobby’s helmet, and then running away while he slips over the ice. You can also don a war-time gas-mask and experience the famous London ‘pea-soup’ fog. And if it rains, it rains. But only outdoors” (EE:184).

13 “Pascal led to Saussure via Laurence Sterne; Rousseau to Baudrillard via Edgar Allan Poe, the Marquis de Sade, Jerry Lewis, Dexter Gordon, Bernard Hinault and the early works of Anne Sylvestre; Levy Strauss led to Lévy-Strauss” (EE: 53).

14 Most critics agree on the complexity of Barnes’s novel, a satire that ends like a moan over the loss of a world no longer possible to recapture. Richard Bradford (2007), for instance, summarises his view on the book by saying that: “Barnes’s novel involves a double bluff. He seems at first to select easy targets for caricature and satirical execution: predominantly England as an assembly of brand names and performances all capable of drawing cash from the credulous tourist. But by the conclusion his characters have found among this chiaroscuro of impressions an England that is at once imperfect but compelling” (p.183).

58 Laura Fernanda BULGER

old Martha returns to her Hardyesque village, as much of a fake as Sir Jack’s England, England. As she walks away from the May Fête, she wonders if her failing memory is deceiving her: “Had there really been a gibbet up there?” (EE:

261) – asks Martha, in disbelief. Albion, like everything else in the novel, is the upshot of self-deception. In England, England, Julian Barnes’s cynical account points to the artificiality of a concept such as Englishness, a political and cultural construct forging, as in the nineteenth-century, a national identity that ceased making sense in a postcolonial time, when Englishness no longer works as a device to keep England’s “primacy” in the world, or make history “overseas”, paraphrasing Mr. ‘Whisky’ Sisodia, Salmon Rushdie’s funny character, in The Satanic Verses: “The trouble with the Engenglish is that their hiss his history happened overseas, so they dodo don’t know what it means” (Rushdie 1988:343). Barnes’ fine irony also warns against the danger that any sentimental vibe, be it Englishness or any fluid notion of the sort, may be utilized to deceive credulous, poorly informed people who feed on stereotypes, myths, often fabricated tradition, the Visitors of the theme park portraying the dupes. In effect, the danger is real, but only if mass re- production and kitsch ever become as authentic as the thing itself in people’s eyes. Let’s hope it never comes to that.

References

Ackroyd, P. (2002). Albion, the origins of the English imagination. London: Vintage.

Barnes, J. (1998). England, England. London: Picador.

Baucom, I. (1967). Out of place, Englishness, empire, and the locations of identity. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Bradford, R. (2007). The novel now. Contemporary British fiction. Malden, Oxford,Victoria: Blackwell Publishing.

Foden, G. (December 1, 2007). The moral agent, in The Guardian. Retreived February 2, 2008, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/dec/01/classics.josephconrad.

Head, D. (2002). The Cambridge introduction to modern British fiction, 1950-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hutcheon, L. (1988). A poetics of postmodernism. History, theory, fiction. New York and London: Routledge.

Parrinder, P. (2006). Nation & novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rennison, N. (2005). Contemporary British novelists. London, New York: Routledge.

Rushdie, S. (1988). The satanic verses. London: Viking.