Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Savage torpor"?

Andrew O'Hagan, a Scottish writer, delivered the recent Orwell Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck College, London, and I found an edited version in today's Guardian. Which led me to the Youtube recording of the entire lecture. Which, like the total geek I am, I listened to avidly over my Saturday morning coffee. (Check it out by clicking on the video above. You'll have to find parts 2-5. This is just part 1. But you can get them at this site here.)

I thoroughly enjoyed O'Hagan's erudite and pithy exposition of the symptoms of, and reasons for, the decline of the English working class, and their lack of any radical, self-healing collectivist response.

And if, as Obama revealed during the campaign when he thought he wasn't being recorded for once, the white poor of America's heartland have turned bitterly to guns and religion, their counterparts in England have their own symptomatic illness, manifested in soccer hooliganism, celebrity mania, credit cards, and designer drugs and the like, a shallow consumerist nightmare.

And since, as de Toqueville recognized and O'Hagan mentions, these two peoples remain much the same people, separated by a common language, yet joined by common surnames and a common faith in individualism, coming closer each year in many ways, in particular sharing every year more of the same electronic and consumer culture and fighting the same wars, you could, with little stretch, apply the same conceptual analysis to the white American underclass.

You'd have to change most of the references to their American analogs. But you could do it.

In O'Hagan's analysis, this sad decline of the English working community is just the most recent manifestation of a greater, infinitely sadder history, much older, one that predates Polanyi's "Great Transformation."

I resonated strongly and intuitively to O'Hagan's theory, which surprised me although it shouldn't because I grew up working class in Sheffield, England, and by rights should be stuck in that nightmare myself, along with many of my relatives. I only escaped by the skin of my teeth and a terrifyingly risky personal odyssey that eventually landed me permanently in America.

Where can you go with this?

I wonder, because for too long I've suspected that the great transformations wrought by Anglo-American industrial capitalism will pale in comparison to those that will be wrought by today's emerging forces.

Climate change, the energy crisis, the food crisis, China, militant Islam. Massive forces. Massive changes. Who knows how they will combine and clash?

O'Hagan, like Orwell and Polanyi, is to a great extent only hindcasting, an innately conservative approach, and is focused on a tiny group who almost certainly matter very little today, the working English. I'm not sure any of the survivors of this new great transformation will even have time to worry too much about how their ancestors lived and what they have lost, whoever their ancestors were.

On the other hand, if as I keep belabouring on this blog and our farm blog, one response to the combined climate, energy and food crises is a re-intensification and de-industrialization of agriculture, and another is the re-naturing and re-regionalization of energy and industry, then some of us at least, those of us that have the time and temper for it, really ought to go over this ground again and see what we can pull out that others can use.

The first great transformation started in these green hills and valleys where the working English still live. The people O'Hagan studies are those who have felt the full force of the industrial way of life for the longest. In understanding their decline, perhaps we can begin to imagine China after another twenty years of consumerism, or what might happen to social life in India.

O'Hagan does seem to lack one element, though, the perspective of land and soil and place. If, as he repeats to good effect in several ways, few young Englishmen and women suffering the banal imprisonment of a British working class housing estate at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century have much connection remaining to community and nationality and collective voice, fewer yet have connection to the "green and pleasant land" surrounding.

This is a tragedy far greater, I think, than the mere loss of connection to their politics and their radical ancestors. And he seems to assume, perhaps more by omission than intent, that it was always the case, which I don't think is true at all.

Land is healing and it always has continuity. This is because, sea level rise notwithstanding, it is always here in place. And many of the working English of recent generations had a deep and abiding connection to it, in large and small ways, and for all O'Hagan and I know, they still do.

When my maternal grandfather came back from the First World War probably as shattered and traumatized as any human could be, he essentially walked and double-dug his way to peace and sanity. His geography was small. He walked the still-green fields of the Mayfield Valley, and he dug the ground and planted vegetables and flowers as a professional gardener. The fact that what he was doing was exactly what his ancestors had done, on the same ground, in the same valley, for centuries, never probably occurred to him. But he did it all the same, probably because he knew instinctively that there was nothing else to do, and it saved him, made his family, and led to me.

His legacy of flowers and food is long compost, but I still treasure it.

And when, in 1945, my paternal grandfather, who'd been an activist before the war as well as an outdoorsman, artist, and Kinder Trespasser, came back from wartime service in Iraq to the next valley south, a more industrialized part of Sheffield, he came back to a house that was bombed out, a family scattered, and a community disrupted. His response was to gather first his wife and kids, and then his community, and to begin to organize new, safe, decent community housing through the new Labour government council house program. He was instrumental in the building of a new estate on a greenfield site in Dronfield where he lived the rest of his days and his daughter and granddaughter and their family still live. It was and remains one of the best, most well-designed public housing developments of that era. He also continued to campaign for access and rights-of-way for outdoor recreation, and remained active in Sheffield city planning, for the rest of his life. He essentially was able to implement his working class vision of a better England on the ground and community, and his legacy too was lasting.

His geography was larger. Slightly better educated than my maternal grandfather, he could drive, and had access to knowledge my maternal grandfather lacked, and his working landscape ranged from Dronfield north over the Pennines to Scotland. At the end of his days he sat in his council house and tried to capture those mountain scenes in landscape art, until Parkinson's took that pastime from him too.

These are working class British stories that seem to break the mold that O'Hagan is making. He would probably say that they are the exception and not the rule, and I would probably have to agree to be fair.

But they do show that in a recent generation at least, a knowledge of land and place led to the deep remaking and rebuilding of English family and community, and moreover, that this successful remaking took place after trauma much deeper than anything seen in recent times. And does it matter that each man was perhaps more of an individual than a collective actor?

And for me, I'd like to think I try to take the same ethos and put it to work on new land, a new community, a New England, with new problems, new trauma coming.

Just because the Scots and Welsh and Irish discovered their community and place more collectively, doesn't mean to say that the English (and by extension those other individualists, the Americans) might not find it and re-find it more individually, possibly with as much success.

But what a superb lecture. It surely made me think. And does old George proud.

Well done, Mr O'Hagan.

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