worlds of england

Tom, the central character of Jonathan Raban’s novel Waxwings (2003), is the child of East European immigrants living in Essex. When he reads Swallows and Amazons, he realises that England is “another country”. The street in which he lives is

    not so much a part of it as a colonial dependency inhabited by an inferior people. The England of the books, the real England, began somewhere in London and stretched out westward from the city into a rich, dappled landscape of green hills, brambly footpaths, oak trees, and half timbered Tudor villages… (p127, my ellipsis)

The geographical and cultural interpenetrations of that kind of fiction–its landscapes & the “worlds” they encoded–were always more complex than Raban makes them seem. This is because it was a fantasy not just for its consumers but for many of the authors who wrote it; and in the end even for the very children who lived something like it, out in the brambly Shires. Having said that, Raban comes as close as anyone has come to describing my own relationship with the England of those kinds of children’s books. They informed the world of a quiet, alienated boy (whose family, entry-level middle class, went in awe of fake Tudor, let alone the real thing, & knew they could never aspire to it), not destined for grammar school or university but already trapped by the primacy of the written word & the culture of fantasy, or fantasy of culture. By the end of the 1950s I had already bought into writing as an escape from the housing estate, rather than an honest admission of what I saw & experienced. This gave rise to a set of internal contradictions & literary/political paradoxes which took two decades to resolve.

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12 responses to “worlds of england

  1. Matt ridley

    Getting to the ‘underside of things’ again Mr Harrison! I feel l know exactly what you (and Mr Raban) mean. Must get that book, he is a fine writer.

  2. Justina

    Glad you escaped. Me, I still have a way to go.

  3. I’ll never forget the revelation of spending some time in a certain southern university town when I was 16 and realising this landscape was what it had all been about – comfortable farmland, a domesticated river with reeds and moorhens, pleasant old buildings; trees and flowers that could grow untroubled by Atlantic weather and vandals. How unlike the ferocious, toxic Mersey, the failed town planning, the ubiquitous theft and destructiveness I had grown up with. I had found it late, but if I could get in there, all my desires would surely be met. It also took me a few years to get that honeysuckle-scented goop out of my eyes.

  4. uzwi

    Hi Matt. Waxwings is a good book, but being a novel it seeks for narrative structure where Raban (like Charlie Nicholls) used to provide a kind of musing eclecticism-around-a-theme. In Soft City et al, you never knew whether you were reading a travel book, a history, or a piece of literary criticism: you only knew that with every additional sentence or image the dragon was appearing more distinctly in the map. Maybe it was a watermark. Maybe it was a whole new nation. Waxwings doesn’t deliver those kinds of kicks.

    Hi Julian: tell me about it.

    Hi Justina, maybe I’ve been less clear than I wanted to be. I meant: my tendency to deny the quotidian (the housing estate) by escaping into the middle-class fantasy worlds of children’s fiction left me with conflicts which took a couple of decades to sort out.

    It was easy to recognise that Swallows & Amazons isn’t a picture of the world; less easy (for me) to understand its drawing-power, or how to reconcile that with the equal drawing-power of urban, industrial & “edgeland” landscapes, & to find an ideological position which would allow my fiction its freedom inside all of them.

    & of course that didn’t solve the original problem anyway. As a writer, I felt, it wasn’t my job to escape, or facilitate anyone else’s escape. It was to stare at things grimly & directly and write them down. That feeling of–inevitably failed–responsibility isn’t something I want to pass on to any other writer. It still generates powerhouse conflicts for me, conflicts that make writing interesting, but it’s also embarrassing in its naivete.

    So when you congratulate me on my escape I feel a bit wry, as if I’ve completely failed to describe the prison…

  5. That brought back some memories! I read Ransome’s Swallow & Amazons as a child living on a forest reserve in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. The Blacketts and the Walkers on the Norfolk Broads with a lake on their doorstep! We had the Pungwe in flood.

    My mother’s family had supposedly come over from a quiet parish in Norfolk, but had in reality fled South African mining compounds after being reclassified Non-White in 1922. My Scottish father worked for the Forestry Commission, replacing indigenous rainforest with plantations of wattle and pine destined for the Commonwealth, and we were surrounded by other white post-World War II arrivals from Britain who reconstituted themselves as Colonels or gave themselves double-barreled surnames or degrees from Oxford or Cambridge, chintzed up their bungalows and sent their children for elocution lessons.

    Nothing could be taken at face value, but the booming profits from the tobacco industry helped sustain the social fictions of betterment. Except that the Second Chimurenga had started and Little England on the Veld was about to implode.

  6. Anthony Blanche in Brideshead warned Charles Rider against English charm, the same charm of Swallows and Amazons, Aslan and friends, William Brown but not, thankfully, Philip Pullman. It is the same charm that infests the Booker, and so often about Middle Class angst. It might have taken two decades to solve those contradictions and paradoxes, but solve them you did. Be thankful you didn’t grow up in the physical version of that charming world. Most who did can only peddle a fantasy that is pure English Tourist Board.

  7. “In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn’t know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different than the one that I was in.”

    -Jasper Johns

  8. I used to imagined every part of England has a very wet, very green lawn nearby.

    When I got there, that, at least, was confirmed. As well as my assumption that there would be bright primary-colored signs with fat arrows pointing to parts of it.

  9. As a child, I always found Ransome a dull confection of khaki shorts and charcoal. Who cared, with a moon landing in prospect? Space, in every sense, seemed right outside the door – or at least, down at the end of the garden.

    So that was a part of my Sixties: standing on just such a very wet, very green lawn, waiting for the rockets.

  10. uzwi

    Hi Martin. Did they ever arrive ?

  11. Any day now …

    The real answer is that I learnt you have to try and build your own – and that it’s enough of an achievement to make contact with other people, let alone other worlds. Tranquillity Base was literally child’s play compared to that.

  12. am battles

    i live in hertfordshire. i’m from the usa originally though. i’ve never had this about england before i came here. i do feel more at home here than in the usa, though.

    since i read you like unusual literature, i want to ask: have you ever read agota kristof’s trilogy, the notebook/the proof/the big lie?

    in addition to the very complex reaction i’ve had to that (weird, profound, sad, frighteningly disorienting, also probably ‘cold’) book, i had an ‘another country’ experience about rural eastern europe.

    and it was quite profound, because it’s the first time anything i’ve ever read has made me thankful i was born into the american middle class, and not into rural poverty. i mean in a sort of, i’ll quit making excuses for myself sort of way… also the only book to ever make me cry… for another reason though.