19th August 2017
Are you worried about the Bongs? The Daily Mail’s Deputy Political Editor John Stevens (‘Always looking for stories’) is. While some of you may be worried about the catastrophic impact of Brexit on the economy, loss of jobs, human rights, freedom of movement or the potentially disastrous effect on our food security (for instance), the Tories are worried about what sound will be used to symbolise our departure:
In tomorrow’s Mail, Tory MPs demand Big Ben is used to bong us out of EU at midnight on 31 March 2019 #Brexit 🇬🇧🕰
— John Stevens (@johnestevens) August 18, 2017
As attention has turned from re-launching Britannia, digging up old Kings, retro-canonisation of the Peoples Princess, or mourning the Bake-Off, Big Ben has become the symbol of everything holy and sacred.
If the Bongs are a goner other suggestions could be the revival of the Prillar Horn, the ancient Anglo-Saxon cow horn trumpet (pictured), to pump out the national anthem on all frequencies, or a medley of all the winning British Eurovision entries sung by Sir Cliff Richard (starting with Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String”, Lulu’s “Boom Bang-a-Bang” and ending with a re-formed Bucks Fizz joining him on stage to bang out “Making Your Mind Up”). Alternative suggestions could include: Ed Sheren doing Jerusalem, or a revival of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s classic Three Lions may also be contenders. These are just my own initial ideas, surely a national poll by the Super Soaraway Sun should decide the matter?
If the Bongs issue is Brexitannia on cultural steroids, this Nostalgiafest is nothing new.
From John Major’s slightly creepy evocation of ‘warm beer and long shadows, dog lovers and old maids cycling to holy communion’, to the more ancient idea of Merrie Old England, the idea of reverence of the past is hard-wired into Conservatism and Deep England culture recently revived and revisited by Paul Kingsnorth and others.
“Merry England“, or in more jocular, archaic spelling “Merrie England” (also styled as “Merrie Olde England“), refers to an English autostereotype, a utopian conception of English society and culture based on an idyllic pastoral way of life that was allegedly prevalent at some time between the Middle Ages and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. More broadly, it connotes a putative essential Englishness with nostalgic overtones, incorporating such cultural symbols as the thatched cottage, the country inn and the Sunday roast. “Merry England” is not a wholly consistent vision but rather a revisited England which Oxford folklorist Roy Judge described as “a world that has never actually existed, a visionary, mythical landscape, where it is difficult to take normal historical bearings.” It may be treated both as a product of the sentimental nostalgic imagination and as an ideological or political construct, often underwriting various sorts of conservative world-views. Favourable perceptions of Merry England reveal a nostalgia for aspects of an earlier society that are missing in modern times.”
One manifestation of this hyper-nostalgia is some very strange utterances about Ireland. Some senior Tories have even suggested that Ireland will somehow want to re-set history and re-join Britain. Leading the way into a fantasy yesteryear is an absurdist re-writing of very recent history, here the Tories and Telegraph combine to pretend that it was somehow the EU which voted for Brexit and decided to leave the customs union.
In this notion England/Britain returns as saviour:
— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) August 16, 2017
This is remarkable.
Scottish nationalism has many of its own problems.
But this level of unconscious un-reflective madness isn’t one of them.
While this week has seen the pooterish Douglas Alexander given a run-out to lecture people about ‘nationalism’, a diatribe that he seems to have kicked off after bleach-cleaning his own party’s recent history of foreign adventurism, ruthless cultural packaging, flag-waving and naked nationalism, and another intervention by one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Andrew O Hagan at the Book Festival.
He cites James Baldwin, Norman McCaig and Alexander Solzenitzyn and reflects:
“I noticed something beginning to happen that didn’t happen when I was a younger writer: I began not so much to build defences around my own arguments, as to awaken to their weaknesses. It’s often a failure of intellectual curiosity that causes us to learn nothing form our own experience: we merely defend what we’ve said before, make a god of what we are known to believe, regardless of changes in the circumstances before us, because that makes us feel better, and feel that we were right all along. But what happens if you try to understand the look in the eyes of my opponents?”
The interesting thing abut O Hagan’s speech is it is explicitly forward-facing.
“I speak for no political movement, but must say, that no party will do for this country that is not in touch with the growth of ideas. In the national song, it is proud Edward that is sent homewards to think again, but what if — all along — it was us who must think again, as our native philosophers taught us to do?”
“Increasingly the experience of life in Scotland is not one of feeling bordered by old constitutional abstractions, of sentimental attachments, of fattening prejudice and deflated pomp, but of being open to a sense of energetic existence beyond the fetters of geography.”
Perhaps acknowledging the reality of a country home to MAKlab, tech-incubator Codebase (who have raised over half a billion dollars in investment), the burgeoning games industry, Rock Star and a thousand others tech start-ups, O Hagan writes:
“In my view, in the Internet of Things, Scotland is due to become one of the world’s strongest digital republics, a place whose institutions are daily enhanced and purified not only by the life of the country but by the life of all countries. We could one day be part of a neural network whose strongest boundaries are decency and goodness. The laws of Scotland will one day be both discreet and universal; right for the people of Leith, augmented by brilliance, and right for the people of Calcutta, restored and revised every minute in according to what we know and decide. After that, our political institutions may not lie to us because their lies will immediately be obvious, and our churches will be colourful and wise, offering a sense of the magical and the sacred beyond the bounds of reason. Scotland, your Scotland, is in the earliest days of a digital renaissance…”
Some of this has the passion of an emigre Scot returned home, but it’s also telling how negativity becomes hard-wired into those of us who never move. It’s insidious. It’s inside us.
But if English nationalism is turbo-charged by Brexitannia (or is it the other way round), and if Merrie Old England revels in the glorious past, an odd thing happens with Scottish unionist nostalgia. O Hagan’s lecture sent some commentators into a tailspin. David Torrance vented his spleen in the Guardian pleading that O’Hagan return to a previous more negative view of the country.
Like an inverse Conservative Nostalgia, Torrance yearns for the day when things were worse. If only literary fools like O’Hagan could recognise how bad things are, as they have always been, and, presumably, always will be.
Torrance pleads for a return to 1992 when he (O’Hagan) had believed Scotland was “a mean-minded carnival of easy resentments … a proud country mired up to the fiery eyes in blame and nostalgia”. His heart pumping Torrance channels his own long-shadowed John Major sighing:
“In truth, the Scotland of 2017 still resembles that O’Hagan described in 2002, a place of ‘paralysis, nullity and boredom; a nation of conservatives’.”
The hallmark of Conservative Nostalgism is the faith in the ability to recreate the past simply by willing it. This is what we are seeing with the Brexiteers faithful regurgitation of the cultural tropes and symbols of English Greatness, from Bongs to Jam to Rule Britannia and their bizarre statements about Ireland. Dreaming of the past allows you to ignore inconvenient truths.
If Torrance – now in full cringe – moans about O’Hagan’s use of Burns, he should counter the Book Festival talks with a visit to Adrian Sherwod and Sally Beamish’s Slave’s Lament at the National Portrait Gallery or Douglas Gordon’s Black Burns, what Kate Molleson calls “a mangled sculpture, a dystopian shadow, a truth we’d prefer to ignore.”
There’s a symmetry to the sort of miserabilism Torrance espouses and the fantasy world of the Brexiteers.One is fixed by a ‘nothing can change’ world vision based on constantly repressing agency and aspiration, the other is based on just dreaming away nasty reality and floating off wrapped in a red white and blue shroud.
*We really need your support to develop though and we’d like to ask you to support us by donating to us here.
Bella Caledonia remains free (and ad-free) and takes me hundreds of hours a month to research, write, commission and edit. If you value what I do, please consider supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing. GoCardless to set up a small monthly donation to support independent journalism in Scotland.
Go here to subscribe for free and get each Bella article sent to your email
Go here to follow us on Twitter @bellacaledonia
Go here to follow us on Instagram
Go here to join our Facebook Group
Go here to follow us on Spotify
Go here to write for us