Friday, July 13, 2007

Reflections on a pair of novels and a couple of trips to Chester

This is not a review of Losing Nelson or England, England, or a record of visits to Chester. As the title claims, it’s a reflection, a few observations on culture and identity seen through Englishness. The trips to Chester are offered by the way, as a start and a finish.

I don’t recall the year when my dad’s Electricity Board Sports Club decided on Chester as its destination for the kids’ outing. I do remember many of those annual events vividly, however, perhaps because of the unearthly hour at which we had to set off. Britain had no motorways then and dual carriageways were rare. Roads went through town centres, the concept of the by-pass having just reached the drawing board – at least in the north – and adults could still smoke on the bus, despite the fact that potted meat sandwiches were probably being consumed in the next seat. The sandwich filling has a bearing on the tale, since the price of the trip included a packed lunch, usually passed around in bulk, the sandwiches cut in triangles, not the rectangles of home, and set in Toblerone ranges on a teacloth-draped tray. There was an apple or an orange, perhaps, to finish. I don’t know why I didn’t like potted meat, but I can remember persuading my mother to do me a round of bacon sandwiches as an adjunct to the standard fare. Perhaps I was just being greedy, but they did come in handy, if in a rather unexpected way. I can remember visiting Chester’s historic town centre, all those half-timbered buildings provoking discussions about the Tudors, who they were, how they fit into history, who came before and who followed. The predecessors interested all of us on the trip, because we were from Yorkshire and we could never accept that the Lancastrians had won the war. At least we were in Cheshire! And then there were the city’s Roman origins to consider, leading to my learning my first Latin word when we were told that Chester was but a corruption of “castra”, Latin for camp (the military variety).

And so to the zoo. Yes, there were real zoos in those days. I was a fan of Zoo Time on TV, where Dr Desmond Morris, before his higher primate fame, did live experiments with chimpanzees and rewards, all encased in a Prokofiev theme tune. At Chester I remember I liked the sea lions, found the camels oppressively smelly and learnt that elephants really like cold bacon sandwiches.

When an infant, I used to wiggle the ridges off my candlewick bedspread. I don’t know whether it was a search for solace in the tactile, but it used to exasperate my mother, because I used to pick things into holes. Charles Cleasby, the Horatio Nelson worshipping main character of Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson, often sleeps under a holed and worn blanket of his mother’s whenever he needs reassurance. It’s a covering of peace for him, a way of shutting out the complications of the world and operates physically in the same way that his need to wrap himself in the myth of Nelson protects him mentally. Thus he is perhaps more a worshipper than a scholar. But the myth has become part of his psyche, part of his identity. Nelson’s greatness, Nelson’s genius, are parts of the nation’s greatness and genius and thus, by association, part of Cleasby’s own moral and personal identity. But, wanting to find out more, Cleasby researches Nelson’s history, expecting to confirm greatness and therefore bolster myth. To his increasing dismay and reluctantly admitted disbelief, what he uncovers are the complications of history, the messy realities of war and the personal limitations of the historical figure, who is often revealed as less than competent, certainly less than diplomatic, but also, and more importantly, as a self-seeking, ruthless individual, certainly not a team player. The myth dissolves little by little and so does Charles Cleasby’s hold on reality. As Nelson loses his mythical status, Cleasby’s world simply falls apart. He is no longer able to interpret experience nor relate to his surroundings. The blanket cocoon offered by myth generates an intellectual and mental solace that can both justify and reinforce identity and, once the protecting wrap has been holed for Charles, at least and perhaps for a nation, it is identity itself that is challenged. Losing Nelson is a serious and moving study of the essential role of myth in defining identity and creating psyche, citing its power and its limitations, these derived from its essence of simply being myth.

In England, England, Julian Barnes inhabits similar territory, but humorously. One character lists quintessences (there are more than five) of Englishness and many, perhaps most, are myth, by nature or association. And the purpose of identifying these icons of Englishness is to facilitate the construction, by Sir Jack Pitman on an eventually independent Isle of Wight, of an England Theme Park, packed with imitation and reproduction experience, collected together to take the strain out of tourism. Theme Park England becomes, itself, the quintessence (just one) of corporate identity and presence, with the products on offer being seen and marketed as “better” than the originals. It’s all a great success until, that is, the imitations begin to adopt their assigned identities. Smugglers become a problem when they start smuggling. Dr. Samuel Johnson changes his name to – guess what? – Dr. Samuel Johnson and begins emulating the behaviour of the historical figure, along with a few of his own improvisations for added effect. The King thinks he’s a king and Robin Hood and his Merrie Men yearn to be real outlaws. They are all in breach of contract. Through humour, the book asks questions about what is essential in national personal identity. The project identifies myths and reproduces them as second order experience which themselves become as capable of fulfilling the role of identity creation, definition and perpetuation as the real thing. So, by extension, the book questions how we create, assume and sustain cultures and their associated values.

The existence of myth and its potential to influence identity and culture are highly relevant to my second day out in Chester. This time as an adult I revisited the half timbering and Roman roots, the zoo having been transformed by changed notions of the animal. And a new reality asserted itself, redrafting the assumed permanence of my childhood memories. Unbeknown to the child, the half-timbering is largely nineteenth century reproduction and imitation. If it prompts discussion on Tudor England, it does so only by assumed association learned elsewhere. And the extant Roman elements of Chester are miniscule, reduced to a few piles of stone. The town’s official guide book, which I bought to help interpret the visit, pictured a Roman Centurion on its cover. He carried a shield with the words “Tetley Bitterman” emblazoned where one might have expected “SPQR”. At the end of the visit a myth I hade grown up with had been largely exploded. The history, itself, is not the myth. It’s the evidence that’s claimed on its behalf that is the problem. No wonder Sir Jack’s Theme Park attractions were as good as the real thing when the original was originally a theme park. The myth may survive the reality, I suppose, if the individual still wants to believe it. And, by the way, I have never managed to ask elephants if they really do like cold bacon sandwiches.

View this book on amazon Losing Nelson England, England

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