One of the peculiarities of Englishness is the denial of a national culture. Of course almost all cultures are derivative, drawing on a variety of sources. And the best have an appeal which is universalist, shaped by the breadth of their audience. There is a distinctly English contribution to punk, post-punk, two-tone ska, reggae and lovers rock, grime, jungle and raga, dance music, indie-rock, heavy metal, soul, rave and acid house. This isn’t to ignore particular contributions to each from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but why should we deny their Englishness either?
The Jam and the Clash, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths and Pulp, The Specials and Madness, Steel Pulse and Misty, Beth Orton, Asian Dub Foundation, So Solid Crew, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, Lily Allen and Estelle, each have been framed by their locality, from Woking, Southall and West London to Handsworth, Salford and Sheffield. A music that came out of a city in South Yorkshire or the West Midlands inevitably draws on influences outside of national boundaries. Some are the product of a disapora, an English variety of Afro-Caribbean reggae or ska, an English version of South Asian bhangra. But however variegated the origins and influences there remains an almost outright refusal to own up to the Englishness of the music. This is perhaps best summed up by early 1990s Britpop. In his superb chronicle of the era The Last Party John Harris details the major Britpop bands; Blur, Elastica, Oasis, Pulp, and Suede. Plus the seminal influence on them all of Paul Weller. The book was subtitled the demise of English rock.
In his introduction to the 2001 edition to England’s Dreaming music journalist Jon Savage details the mounting political contradiction, as well as the absences that it serves to obscure, of the so-called Britpop of Oasis and Blur. ‘The Union Jack-strewn Britpop did not reflect Britain’s multicultural reality but highlighted, almost exclusively, white rock groups from the South East. So it wasn’t Britpop – because dance music is mainstream pop – but Engrock. Yet this kind of unquestioning English superiority is under constitutional attack as never before.’ OK we’ll ignore Jon’s glaring omission of Northern England’s Oasis and Pulp but his point still holds. The failure to address formations of English culture serves too often not only to ignore the contribution of black, Asian and migrant cultures but also enforces an assumption that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland somehow don’t count. The English Brits do the job and sod the rest.
But devolution has begun to bust apart this cultural conspiracy of a Greater Englishness masquerading as Britishness. A conspiracy often justified by liberal commentators as somehow justifiable on the basis of its supposed “inclusiveness”. Go tell that to the Scots, Welsh and at least half of the Northern Irish too. In stark contrast Michael Bracewell was one of the first writers to detect the radical, unsettling, pluralist potential of coming to terms with England’s role in this broken-up culture. As jungle stations send respect to junglists whose identity is defined by little more than the names of towns – to Torquay, Carlisle, Ipswich, Wigan – there is the momentary sense, before that movement too becomes absorbed into the loop of cultural history, that England is being broadcast as an outlaw sonic sculpture.’ Rebel songs from the land of Robin Hood good-for-something banditry, just the thing to download on to your ipod and file under English.
Mark Perryman is the editor of the new book Breaking Up Britain : Four Nations after a Union. A unique collection of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish contributors, featuring key political activists from the nationalist parties, commentators and campaigners, academics and journalists. Each writer explores the change that the break-up demands in their own nation, but also discusses its impact upon the whole. Published by Lawrence and Wishart it is available from www.lwbooks.co.uk and all major outlets.
A FREE DOWNLOAD of Mark’s opening chapter ‘A Jigsaw State’ in Breaking Up Britain is available as a pdf from www.lwbooks.co.uk/books/archive/Breaking_up_Britain_Perrryman.pdf