thornberry_3113624bIn the first of a series of articles looking at contemporary English culture and politics in the run-up to St George’s Day 2016, Jay Griffiths reflects on stolen English indigeneity.

In the deserts, a woman is staring at the parched landscape of arid plains. Her heart is thirsty, she is downcast and homesick, yearning for the fertile lands where she was born, for its moist and tumbling leaves, for the cool mountains and rivers and the meadows of sheer and vivid green.

To console her nostalgia, her husband builds colonnades and arches, fills a garden with plants and irrigates it all with a filigree of waterlines until it flourishes with myrtles, until almonds bask in the sun, until date palms sweeten and pomegranates swell, until grapevines curl their tendrils to the touch of his beloved queen.

So Nebuchadnezzar created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for Queen Amytis and so, too, an ancient portrait of homesickness was carved, a love of one’s land so specific that its loss can make you sicken, hurt with the ‘ache for home’ as nostalgia means in the roots of the word. Homesickness is a longing for the place of your belonging, its exact contour and climate, where the land knows you and calls you by some deft especial name, where the heart finds its first hearth. The raw imperative of a first love.

It is as if humans are born with the capacity to love the land on which we first set eyes. It is as if we have an inner template for this home-land-love, which is then adapted to the precise landscape of our childhood. This is a parallel for Chomsky’s theory of the template for the grammar of language, by which a child is born with the ability to learn Language, an innate, pre-set template which is then tuned to the specific language which surrounds them. So perhaps we are born with an innate capacity to love our land, though that may be riverlands of wild garlic and bluebells or desertlands of catfish and hot springs; lands which talk with the brogue of heather or the vernacular of oak woodland; lands which speak the argot of snow or the dialect of the savannah. For, despite the diversity of landscapes where humans have dwelled, the one constant is the ready love in the human heart.

In this, more than anything, is a demonstration of the indigenous human being, where the foot is moulded to the land it walks, the language entwined with locale so that the human being knows its dwelling well, somewhere warm for the spirit, snug with the scent of dog-fox and desire.

When I wrote Wild, I was intrigued by many conversations with indigenous people, from shamans of the Amazon to Inuit people of the Arctic, about their love of land, its wildness and its sense of home. Indigenous people said repeatedly ‘We are the land’ and exile from their lands – through its destruction, through land theft – ruptures their identity so painfully that it causes a sickness of the heart, mind and body.

This is a birthright, this love of land. This indigenous nativity is a profound aspect of our human identity. But for the English, it is a contorted feeling, knotted with nastiness and silence, complicated by racism, guilt and empire. Yet, for many people, it is also the source of an almost unfathomable nostalgia, an ache of the heart which all the hanging gardens of the world cannot console.

This is a birthright, this love of land. This indigenous nativity is a profound aspect of our human identity. But for the English, it is a contorted feeling, knotted with nastiness and silence, complicated by racism, guilt and empire. Yet, for many people, it is also the source of an almost unfathomable nostalgia, an ache of the heart which all the hanging gardens of the world cannot console.

The English can be either envious of indigenous cultures or poisonously racist towards them. For the racists, contempt suffices. But the envious response invites questions. Where are our old gods and songlines? The genius loci? The spirit of place? Why don’t we, or can’t we, sing our own folk songs? Why are the English so obsessed with selected pockets of history and simultaneously ignorant of most of it? What are the causes of our exile?

If you are a Palestinian, the cause of your exile is only too knowable, as poet Mahmoud Darwish discovered when he was six years’ old and the Israeli Army destroyed his village, leaving ruins. He would become an ‘internal refugee’, a ‘present-absent alien’. In 2001, Israeli bulldozers ripped open his village’s cemetery for a road, churning up human remains from the ground, bulldozing the past. For Palestinians, memory is necessary, while for the Israelis, it is better to have a sketchy memory for atrocities committed. There was (is) a similar pattern between the English and the Irish, as Eamon de Valera noted, saying that the difficulty was that ‘the English never remember, the Irish never forget.’ The vanquished are left with nothing but exile and memory while the victors are left with land which does not speak to them. Within Britain, the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Cornish know a love of land which the English, so often, do not experience. Why so? In part, because the first acts of empire were internal, making Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall into colonies. But in the long run, it is the English who have become ‘internal refugees’ in terms of culture and home-land-love.

Dispossessing, murdering and enslaving indigenous people, and removing them from their lands, was the story of empire. But if one mentions the reckless cruelties imposed for the sake of empire, the chances are that someone will sneer that one is suffering from a hand-wringing post-imperialist guilt, as if guilt is an unhygienic bad habit, a perversion, a personality-disorder. Should the British (and particularly the English) feel guilty for the atrocities of Empire? Of course we bloody should. To abuse people without a flicker of guilt is something only psychopaths would be proud of. After the empire, though, after a few guilty recollections, what then? We have, collectively, through neoliberalism, through corporations, through consumerism, through extractive industries and the arms trade, continued to crush the peoples of the world who we first impoverished by empire. Should the British feel guilty now? Of course we bloody should.

Dispossessing, murdering and enslaving indigenous people, and removing them from their lands, was the story of empire. But if one mentions the reckless cruelties imposed for the sake of empire, the chances are that someone will sneer that one is suffering from a hand-wringing post-imperialist guilt, as if guilt is an unhygienic bad habit, a perversion, a personality-disorder. Should the British (and particularly the English) feel guilty for the atrocities of Empire? Of course we bloody should.

The psychopath insists that one should not dwell on the past. Onwards, onwards on the road to the future! But the past is where the deep truths of today were seeded. The past plays cause to today’s consequence. Memory has become a political act and it is more radical to remember our history accurately than to don a balaclava and smash up a McDonald’s.

But for the English in particular, memory is difficult. We seem to want to remember Robin Hood, King Arthur and Puck perhaps, but Olde England seems to be visible only as some cheesy Avalon seen through the windscreen of a BMW, or some beer mug with the Green Man leering in the handle. For something more profound, deeper in the spirit of the land seems shy of us. The gods won’t play. Something in the land will not grant us an authentic dwelling for the soul, as if some shame palls the land for us, as if our English indigeneity is something we want and yet can’t find.

You can do a straightforward Google search which gives one answer as to why the indigeneity of the English is a contorted feeling. Type in ‘indigenous Britons’ and seven out of the first ten websites are BNP-related. ‘The liberal-left love to applaud Native Americans for their “soul and soil” approach to life, but we [BNP] reflect such an approach in our own Nationalist mindset,’ says one website. Blood and soil. No one in their right mind wants to be seen anywhere near the hateful BNP, so the territory of English indigeneity is stolen by the far-right. The human home-land-love is perverted into a hatred of other people’s pigmentation and a queasy calculation of blood quota.

Blood and soil. No one in their right mind wants to be seen anywhere near the hateful BNP, so the territory of English indigeneity is stolen by the far-right. The human home-land-love is perverted into a hatred of other people’s pigmentation and a queasy calculation of blood quota.

The ‘Nationalist mindset’ and nation-states are fake political constructs, used frequently to attack, demean or destroy others. Land, on the other hand, is unarguable and unartificial. By dishonestly merging those two concepts, the far-right has poisoned, for all the English, one of the sweetest wellsprings of the human heart. If the white underclass who support the BNP had any education about their own history, they might be able to see that the cause of their feeling of alienation and exile is massive wealth disparity and enclosure; that their true enemies are the odiously wealthy, and a legalised system of land thefts. What the British have done abroad, in the form of imperialism, has also happened within Britain and indeed to most of the English – the corporate colonialism and the colonising of common land by which the wealthy have made serfs of the rest of us.

Start with some contemporary facts of land ownership; some 0.6% of the population owns 69% of the land, so we the commoners are fundamentally homeless in our own land. That is as shocking as any other statistic on the apartheid of land rights. Further, the wealthy landowners have also propelled the factory-farming agribusiness which strips the land of specialness; the hare, the ‘stag of the stubble’ becomes rare. The land is made dumb and speechless, cannot utter its idiosyncratic thoughts. And if it could, would we the commoners be there to hear it? The enclosures, by which the vast majority of us were made internal exiles, was an outright theft of land from which we English Commoners have never recovered. ‘Private: Keep Out’ signs warn us off our own land, even innocent strollers find that landowners set dogs on them and order the walkers off their own home-land, at gunpoint.

For the English (myself, I’m partly English, partly Welsh), one sublime measure of indigenous English culture is Shakespeare. Native to Warwickshire, his work is steeped in the countryside of Stratford, of remembrance and radish and thyme and rue. All of humanity is there in Shakespeare – lovers and schemers, soldiers and poets, priests, shepherds and fools. Well, almost all of humanity – one is missing, a representative of the tribe of fatuous shoppers, stampeding to get an Elizabethan IKEA sofa at half price. Now, in this age of consumerism, ‘Hamlet’ is a brand name and the ‘Forest of Arden’ is an expensive hotel with a golf course. Shakespeare didn’t put the consumer on the stage but in contrast, modernity puts the consumer centre-stage. People on trains are not ‘passengers’ but ‘customers’. People in therapy rooms are not ‘patients’ but ‘clients’. People hanging around on the streets are not ‘citizens’ ‘flâneurs’ or ‘flirters’ but always ‘shoppers.’ Everywhere, we are not people but ‘consumers’, the cash aspect of the relationship privileged over every other aspect of traveling, healing, mooching, chattering.

Consumerism causes cultural eviction, dislocating us all with bland shopping arcades, gigantised, off-ground and artificial, always the same, from the sameness of purpose, to the sameness of product, making every place the same as every other, evicting us from the especial nature of locale. Formed in the barrenness of numbness, this is a wasteland for the human spirit. Tourism has been famously referred to as ‘cheap holidays in other people’s misery’. If only that were all. Consumerism is lifelong holidays in other people’s misery; the global exploitation of land and lives for the sake of the pampered consumer. But consumerism, (‘because you’re worth it and they’re not’) will also give you the shampoo to wash that guilt right out of your hair, will give you the conditioner to recondition morality to continue the exploitation and extermination, guilt-free. And, yes, extermination is the correct term for the slow mass murders of consumption.

Consumerism causes cultural eviction, dislocating us all with bland shopping arcades, gigantised, off-ground and artificial, always the same, from the sameness of purpose, to the sameness of product, making every place the same as every other, evicting us from the especial nature of locale. Formed in the barrenness of numbness, this is a wasteland for the human spirit.

This is Babylon, the corrupt übercapitalism, the tidal waves of corporate takeover, commercial invasion, car parks and shopping malls across the green and singing land, roads on roads, built for commerce and consumerism, blanking out the songlines of this land.


For one long moment in my life, I heard the earthsongs of England. For one exquisite time, I saw the old gods honoured with an authenticity that left me in tears.

During the anti-roads protests of the nineties, the motley-wearers (artists, punks, shamans, squaddies, students, the homeless, pagans, and peasants) fought for their land, literally putting their lives on the line when the authorities issued orders so reckless as to risk murdering the protesters. They wore the feathers of birds for the flight of the gods, they lit the fires of the solstices and paid raw tribute to the earth. They picked up by ear the old songs, gentle as violets, tough as badger’s teeth. Crucially, in every aspect of the protests they created a distinction – and an opposition – between the state and the land. They loved their land and hated their state, defied it with all they had, when the bulldozers came, building roads through the homeland of history, ripping apart the beauty which had graced those woodlands for generations. The protesters referred to the world of consumerism, cars and capitalism as the ‘Babylon’ of today.

To me, the protests were extraordinarily significant, rare as hares, it signified how authentic belonging to the land was something which had to be earned. To belong is to love is to defend with your life if need be. Among the camps – grubby, feral, crusty, sweet-hearted, pissed-up, kind, angry – the gods, who are never for sale, played. I’m no deist, and to me the gods were metaphor and personification and symbol, they were expressions of the land’s indigenous psyche. And they were green to the teeth, rampant and gurning.

One day, representatives of an indigenous community from Bolivia, similarly campaigning against a road (the Pan-American highway) visited one of the sites. ‘We salute you,’ said the indigenous representatives to the protesters, ‘as the indigenous people of Britain. Your fight is the same as ours; you are fighting to defend the land.’ It was honey to hear that idea of indigenous Britons used as far from the BNP as it is possible to get.

There is a word so ancient that you can hardly say the word in sneering metropolitan circles. It is honour. The protesters honoured the land which came alive in their honour. The drums befriended the trees, the bells woke the woodlands. With their treehouses streaming ribbons, flowers and webs, the protesters created the Hanging Gardens in the Babylon of concrete and tarmac. From Babylon which, both ancient and modern, represents corruption, power and wealth, they wrested a corner for the mead moon, the Green Man of the woods who here was neither toy nor relic but reignited, arising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Beltane fire.

It is as if there is a kind of earth-ethic, an underground morality in this, whereby in order to experience one’s home-land-love, in order for the indigenous human heart to belong profoundly to its land, there is a necessary sacrifice. It was exemplified, for me, by the sacrifices made by the protesters; the exposure, ill-health, injuries, stress and burnout, but those are not the only people who know sacrifice to stay true to their lands. The hillfarmers of Wales, the crofters of Scotland and the smallholders of English farms (almost rubbed out by supermarkets and large landowners) also know the high price of fidelity to one’s acre.

But for those who steal the fat of other people’s lands, who take far more than their fair share, and then ask for a taste of mead or the melody of the Ash Grove: those who gobble the resources of others and parade their lives of high consumption and then search for the god Lugh or the spirit of the woods, will find, simply, that they can’t have both. You cannot take without giving, and if you refuse to give, then something will be taken from you, probably in the coin of the soul. All religions are wise to this: where there is guilt, the gods flee.

What indigenous cultures seem universally to recognise is that every act has consequence. Where something is taken, something must be given in exchange. Everything is in a state of balance by which there is a price for everything, a measure for every measure in the scales.

You cannot change the laws of physics, but I’d add that you cannot change the laws of metaphysics either. For high-consuming lifestyles (which indirectly but certainly rob other people of their home-land) have a boomerang effect, causing a loss of belonging to the consumer.

I have tried to look at this in moral terms, but our language of morality (so good on person-to-person morality) seems to gloss over collective morality, and wholly omit an ethic of earth. I am searching, then, to describe some truth of the psyche so profound that it is not only a psychological truth but also an ethic grounded in the mind’s land and the land’s mind, some irrefutable and intrinsic geometry of earth-kind.

For the English to have back our deep, lovely Englishness, we need to remember our past soberly, and to stop repeating its iniquities today through the devious reach of corporate colonialism. If we want to experience our home-land-love, we need to honour other people’s home-lands. We need to educate ourselves about our real history. We need to oppose our nation state for its racism, dishonesty and greed. We need to renounce the political and financial gains made from our nation’s exploitations and wars. If we want our English identity back, if we want to belong to our lands, we have to take our hands off other people’s. And at home, the wealthy, if they want to belong, have to return the lands to the Commoners. They won’t, I know, but what they lose, without question, is the true belonging of the human heart.

Indigenous people frequently say that they belong to the land. Landowners claim that the land belongs to them. Ownership is the opposite of belonging and for the large landowners of Britain, the more they own, the less they belong. Some of these large landowners evade tax by calling themselves ‘non-domiciled’. Intended simply as a tax category it in fact carries a far greater (and sadder) poetic truth.

Aboriginal Australians often speak of belonging to their land, and when there is any sense of ‘owning’ land, it is an ownership which involves not money but knowledge. The knowers of the land, the knowers of the songlines, are the true owners of it. Hedge by hedge, hare by hare, stanza by stanza and grove by grove, the land of England is there to be known, and there are those whose nostalgia for it hurts them. But as it was the very wealth of Babylon which both seduced and exiled Queen Amytis, so it is the wealth of a modern Babylon which seduces and exiles us all who, yearning for a sense of home, find that all the power, wealth and corruption of a consumer Babylon will not console this yearning unless some powerful restitution is made.

………………

Jay Griffiths is the author of ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’ (Hamish Hamilton) and ‘Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression’ (Hamish Hamilton). This article was published first in Dark Mountain Issue 1

Likes(0)Dislikes(0)