The Lost Village, by Richard Askwith. Real England, by Paul Kingsnorth

England's ethnic cleansing

Reviewed,Nick Groom
Friday 11 April 2008 00:00 BST

The death knell of rural life in England has long been sounding. The statistics are sobering, too. In 1995, Britain imported 26 per cent of its food; despite an increasing world food shortage, it now imports 40 per cent. Three dairy farmers have, on average, quit farming every day.

But this collapse is not confined to "forgotten rural England", to quote Richard Askwith's subtitle: 50 specialist shops closed every week between 1997-2002; 56 pubs close every month, and so on. And when every local farm, or shop, or pub, disappears, a little community dies with it.

What is left? For Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there remains a carefully cultivated and reinvented indigenous culture, but what of England? In the absence of anything else, is England currently defined by the extinction of the local and its replacement by mega-retailers and superstores, by clone towns and clone countryside? Is the most salient characteristic of England the erosion of identity and reality in totalitarian shopping complexes (what Paul Kingsnorth calls the "Bluewatering of England"), in the homogenisation of the High Street, out-of-town developments and agri-business? The French have their own word for what has happened here: "Londonisation" – the destruction of heritage and character, and the eradication of traditional meeting places. Londonisation is, in other words, the annihilation of community.

The language used by Kingsnorth is extreme: a "virtual holocaust of small, independent and local retailers". This is happening everywhere, and now. So the politics of these two books is not focused on some big-picture globalisation, but on the high streets and fields at our own doorsteps.

Where global capitalism is involved, Chinatown isn't that different from the Cambridge countryside: towns and cities are as much victims as villages and hamlets. The country and the city are united as common victims of a government-assisted extermination of local difference, independence and character. Both writers even allude darkly to a more chilling way of describing the new England that is emerging. England is a country that is being "ethnically cleansed".

Some will denounce this as sensationalism. Askwith is extremely cautious about such terms, but he has noticed them in the air. His book is in the now-familiar tradition of elegiac village portraits, lamenting the loss of voices and stories. He travels across England, impatient to complete his quest, but doesn't know what he is looking for – or running away from.

Askwith is a sensitive analyst of his moodswings as he drifts from place to place, dissecting the subtle shifts of sympathy and identity he undergoes as he unearths the stories that give place meaning. He admits he is perhaps in the throes of a mid-life crisis whose sole symptom is wanderlust, but he is less a 21st-century Wordsworth than a middle-class liberal who has migrated to a village and sees the limits of his urban ideology. He keeps worrying about right-wing "ruralism" and "rural xenophobia", pussyfoots around the hunting ban, and fears his project is complacent.

We do end with a predictable conclusion: Askwith has missed his own village, and his own villagers – if not "local" locals, then incomers like himself – are fine. "All was well." The ending is ironic, but also oddly evasive. The Lost Village to this point is perceptive, nuanced, restlessly melancholic. But all is certainly not well; and something has to be done about it.

Kingsnorth proves the man to offer analysis, arguments and action. Real England, subtitled "the battle against the bland", is a manifesto against homogenisation, against the ascendant global market, against the almost unstoppable spread of manufactured corporate landscape, against what Ian Nairn in 1957 called the rise of "subtopia": "the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern". Real England is a watershed study, a crucially important book; the most significant account of today's England I have read.

Kingsnorth sees vanishing national identity as a direct consequence of Bluewatering. He is no nostalgic Little Englander, but wants to promote and defend cultural distinctiveness, and "the power of people and communities to define it". He wants to add the local dimension to the politics of globalisation, giving the country's citizens a new sense of place. Although Kingsnorth also embarks on the inevitable series of journeys, his is a brisk and pragmatic travelogue, visiting urban environments as well as threatened rural communities, from markets in London to shopping complexes in Liverpool, Oxford's Jericho boatyard to Sheringham town centre. These are critical cases, affecting the whole cultural fabric of communities.

English pubs are a case in point. They are not just disappearing – many are being converted into "high volume vertical drinking establishments". In such establishments you can do nothing except drink; not sit down, nor even talk above the deafening music. They are the very dens of binge drinking, but Kingsnorth analyses how recent legislation has encouraged these dreadful places through the creation of profiteering "PubCos" and their unforgiving economics. "A good local pub... is the ultimate antidote to placeless globalisation", but identikit bars create the very alienation that pub culture used gently to alleviate.

There are more sinister developments. Shopping complexes are appropriating public space and rights-of-way in new forms of enclosure. "The messy, chaotic, ethnic diversity" of markets is wiped out by the monoculture of money and the English sleepwalk towards the "colonisation and corporatisation of their urban public spaces". This is not nostalgic nimbyism. Rather, Kingsnorth is drawing the battle-lines of a new politics: between those who wish to cower behind the uniform gates of moneyed ghettoes, and those who wish their lives to be embedded in all the richness and diversity created by different human cultures and societies.

If we want to revive England as a real place and not find ourselves existing in a featureless retail park, we need to halt the march of corporate power through the new Sustainable Communities Act and by lobbying for an English Parliament. This really is the last chance...

Nick Groom's 'The Union Jack' is published by Atlantic; he is professor of English at Exeter University

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