You’re in London! Shut up!
I walk over. Why is he heckling the poet? Why is he so vexed? I hunker down next to him. You don’t need to shout at him, though, do you?
The conversation is a roundabout one. Sorry, he says, indicating his bottle of whisky.
I raise my can of Red Stripe. Me as well. But we keep trying.
Why was the poet going on about the US? Why was the poet going on about shootings, of other men, in other countries? This is England.
He wrote his book and it’s how he sees things, I say, trying not to cringe at myself. Who am, I trying to explain the poet’s work, which is urgent and relatable and beautiful and being heard by me for the first time?
Yeah but – who is he, to do that? Violence? I know that. He indicates his side.
What am I being directed to? A scar? It isn’t clear. What is clear, as we both stumblingly try to understand each other, is that he is twenty-eight, has seen the violent side of London, its hostile, nasty side. That he treasures these gardens as a safe place to relax in, where everyone is welcome. That he’s survived difficult experiences and doesn’t want any of the negative brought into our idylls alongside the raised beds of beans, the wildflowers, the tyre sculptures, the graffiti murals.
I haven’t had the opportunity to read Paul Kingsnorth’s take on Arcadia – which is a pity, for I did actually see it last year at the London Film Festival – as the piece has been taken down from the sites on which it was originally posted. Like him, I kind of loved the film – in part because it excerpts extensively from Anchoress (1993, dir. Chris Newby), about which I have a mild obsession – but from what I gather from his response to critics of that piece,* our readings of the film are very different.
The land I saw in those sequenced clips was more than ‘over long before I was born’ – it never existed – and Arcadia exposes the way in which film-makers of the past constructed it. It presents, yes, a pastoral; a Golden Age of the English countryside, rural life, magic, folk traditions. But it also exposes its constructedness. Sequences are repeated; the human figures, out of the context of their film’s entirety, often look outlandish, alarming. Voice-overs from the original footage come across as far less rousing or moving than perhaps originally intended; sandwiched in-between the urgent, rhythmic music, they seem ironic, inviting scepticism, or ominous, encouraging fear. Clips of happy, working people seem, by juxtaposition with each other and the other elements of the film, disquieting – especially as some of those other elements include excerpts from The Wicker Man. By the end of the film, I felt a fair amount of disquiet; all that spooky joy in the smiling faces smack bang up against the burnings, the hunts, the weird rituals, the relentlessness of the soundtrack.
Maybe you’ve seen the film more recently. Maybe you read it differently. I’d be interested to know. But as you can probably guess, I read it as a kind of critique; of ‘land’, of ‘belonging’, of those old ideas about ‘Arcadia’.
I’m thinking about my pastoral companion again. I’m English, he says, at one point. This is London. There’s enough trouble …
Yeah, I say, waving my can. English. You’re English. Well, I’m not. Well, sort of. But, yeah, trouble …
Paul Kingsnorth’s writing disturbs me. I wish I could get behind his ‘call for a resurgence of a love and respect for the particular’. After all, the man in the garden and I felt a lot of love that day for the particular triangle of land in which we lounged, and the city which had welcomed us each, we discovered, over 20 years ago. Kingsnorth yokes this call to another one, ‘for an English identity based on place, not race … ‘ and I almost wish I could cheer the English on in this respect (I have 7 Welsh and 1 English great-grandparent, so don’t qualify as English, presumably, even if I wanted to); I like the idea of an inclusive Englishness.
But therein lies the problem. This ‘English identity’, if I am to believe another piece by Kingsnorth (to which the Arcadia response directs me), is in actual fact, a rather exclusive one. The same, old tired one, in fact. For what am I to make of the following
Waves of immigration from the former empire after the second world war began to change the nature of the English population …’,
of the dog-whistle to racists in ‘waves of immigration’ (think about ‘waves’ and its connotations) or the white myopia that ignores the centuries-old presence of people of colour in the British Isles and the legacy of imperialism and colonialism and slavery?
What am I to make of the juxtaposition of a paragraph laden with statistics about how ‘migration into the UK had risen to historically unprecedented levels’ against, in the following paragraph, this statement:
Meanwhile, the pressure on schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure caused by the rapid population increase were having a real-world impact, especially on working-class and lower-middle-class English people, who were bearing the brunt of the pressure created by the influx of newcomers.
This narrative conveniently ignores the under-investment by successive governments in those schools, hospitals, housing and that infrastructure. Indeed, this narrative is a lot like the one used by the Conservative Party to justify their budget cuts and then to explain the damage done by their cuts. Sure, let’s blame the ‘influx’ (like ‘waves’; does it bring to mind for you as it does for me the images of flooding and washing away?), let’s blame the ‘newcomers’.
This is not Englishness for everyone, no matter how much we love the land.
The other difference in our readings of Arcadia (and again, I’m going by that response-to-critics which also can no longer be read), is that Kingsnorth makes no mention of the people of colour that appear in those archive films. Infrequently, it’s true; I imagine many of the films were made by people who chose to unsee – in the manner of China Mieville’s The City and the City – the Britons of colour around them as they built their nostalgic pastoral – but present. A little girl, lining up with her classmates in a school playground. A young man, with some friends, smiling for the camera operator. A patient woman in a crowd, waiting for something.
As with those film-makers, I get the disquieting sense that Kingsnorth’s England involves a fair bit of squinting and ‘unseeing’ not to see its humans. Such is White Myopia – an affliction from which I am trying to cure myself, also. But humans who blot the landscape with their presences and make it messy and complicated and difficult for a privileged person to enjoy – unhappy workers, people of colour, old women – have been around for a long long time – and like money, like politics – which, like concepts such as ‘arcadia’ and ‘nature’ are human, after all, and therefore subject to political narratives, that is to say ‘histories’ written by privilege – are always, irretrievably entwined with land. And the local (rural haymakers in the sunlight, the stoppered, glass bottle of beer), no matter how distinctive, is always linked to the global (the absent landlord resident in the city, squeezing money from his estate, so much larger now that Enclosure has benefitted him, ploughing his money into sugar and those ships, their human cargo…).
I finish my beer and bid my fellow drinker farewell.
Take care, love, he says.
I don’t know if either of us would qualify for belonging in the England Kingsnorth has in mind. My pastoral companion came to London with his Mum when he was 7 from Somalia – and I, as I’ve said, am definitely not ‘ethnically’ English. And our scrappy pastoral between the railway lines might ‘uglify’ the view as well.
My whiteness might mean you don’t have to squint past me though, when you build Arcadia. Just don’t ask me to join you.
*This piece too has now been taken down. I’m dismayed to hear he’s received personal abuse; I don’t condone that at all. But I would still like to read a more direct response from him to the critiques of his ideas.
My thanks to Vahni Capildeo, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Sally Carruthers for their generous conversations with me about the writings and film I discuss.