“Landscape for Everyone”, a section from A Dream of England (1994) John Taylor
Taylor begins by referring to George Orwell’s Essay The Lion and the Unicornand that Orwell “showed how patriotism ran deep, and ran away from reality towards emotion”, its strength coming in part from a mystical sense of the past; England being a country where the voices of ancestors or mythic leaders were heard, and where the unconquered nature of historic sites overtook their peacetime significance as holiday resorts.
Landscape was a route to levels of emotion which were acceptably patriotic without being too nationalistic (in contrast to the warmongering fascists).
Taylor then goes on to refer to it being conventional to see through to the past, as it were, by looking at the English landscape referring to the writing of C.F.G. Masterman, who in his introduction to E.O.H. Joppe’s book England(1929), imagined “looking down on England at intervals during the centuries” – turning a wheel and pausing at key historical moments up to the ‘black blots on the landscape’ that were the legacy of the Industrial Revolution.
Fears that the countryside would be destroyed by industry (dating from the early C19th Century at least) were overtaken in 1940 by the fear of invasion from abroad, at which point the mythic history of the country ‘unconquered for a thousand years’ was, ‘central to patriotic propaganda which imagined England to be magical, and centred on the village, the squire and the sense of a community close to the past and to nature’ – a state which meant that England would ‘triumph’ even if the enemy invaded. In contrast to this the countryside was ‘rendered illegible to strangers’ through camouflage and removal of directional signs and travel for its own sake was replaced by that of evacuees, refugees and the military.
The countryside was no longer a place for pleasure and wartime restrictions meant it could not be easily visited, ‘its pastoral beauty had to be remembered’. The dilemma for writers and photographers was how to reconcile these differences. Earlier topographic books were reissued by Batsford in 1941-42, which extolled the freedoms of travel within the diversity of the English landscape. The public were constantly reminded that the war was being fought, ‘to preserve the historical nature of English freedoms in an English landscape’. This worked along three dimensions of the viewer’s sense of historical continuity– the layered historic periods evident in the English landscape; the Romantic’s love of English scenery, (‘which had become common coin by the twentieth century’), and the moves for social reform made in the nineteenth century – the ancestral, aesthetic and moral.
Pretty views were no longer enough for picture editors so photographers gave landscape views a ‘war angle’ – e.g. including evacuated children in the foreground, with a caption saying the war had given them their first glimpse of the beauty of England. There had been some earlier battles between landowners and working-class ramblers from industrial centres, e.g. those in the 1930s at Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, but these battles were replaced by a search for a common purpose, promoted by the Ministry of Information and the press with the idea that the beautiful landscape of England belonged to the whole people. An example is given of stories in Picture Post; pre-war picture layouts were used to highlight social inequalities whilst using positive terms about decent working-class pursuits. The same methods were now used to illustrate the differences between Britain and fascist Germany, e.g. “’English’ girls relaxing in deck-chairs on the promenade, whereas ‘German’ girls sat in lecture halls and were given a ‘good talking to’ by Nazi leaders”.
However, as a contrast to any perception that England appeared peaceful and relaxed, strategies were also used to connote “a proud history of battle against would-be invaders from mainland Europe, and the stubborn streak in the British character. Photographs were also used to show how Britain was being mobilised to withstand the German threat, as in photographs of Dover Castle and the natural barriers of the white cliffs which also stood in as a message of farewell and recognition as airmen and troops later, left them behind and returned to them. Other pictorial strategies were used, such as in the early days of the Battle of Britain where the press showed civilians looking upwards for signs of threat and salvation. These pictures evoked both the eyeline artillerymen used to shoot down the enemy, ‘and that by looking up civilians were as vigilant as gunners or Home Guard spotters’ as well as being optimistic and looking to the future.
There was something about the tone of Taylor’s writing that irked me – something pejorative in his use of language as he utilised those earlier commentaries to underpin his views. I was struck by his use of words, for example, warmongering fascists. Did Orwell write this (there are no quotation marks), is this Taylor’s view or is he generalising from other writings around that time? I questioned the underlying purpose of the book – what was Taylor’s overall thesis?
The mention of patriotism also struck home at a time when the UK is struggling through the Brexit crisis, where the outcome of the Referendum has been to reveal deep polarisations within our population and the underlying tensions which can no longer be denied but still await political attention. Patriotism is a word that has been bandied about, and linked negatively to Nationalism and Fascism. Feelings of patriotism have also, I think, been played upon and manipulated towards a positive and optimistic stance to what is happening – albeit one which seems to lack any firm grounding in a will to think laterally and seek/produce a considered solution.
I ordered John Taylor’s book and have read Orwell’s essay which was very enlightening not only in terms of its context at the time but also now when much is being said and written about the need for a new kind of politics.
I’m still part way through the book which is quite dense in its ideas and convoluted in its approach to the topic.
In the introduction (p4), Taylor describes the themes of the book as, [….]the use of text and pictures in representing England in ways tourists might wish to see it: tourists’ experience of ‘reading’, signs and how they enter the game of travelling in time; how landscape and photography are implicated in this game, and how the game contributes to a sense of national belonging. He confines his argument to landscape in England and his overall framework is to write about photography and landscape in three different periods:
c.1885-95 –mass tourism and mass photography having a new and discernible impact on the notion that the traditional ways of life in England were rapidly disappearing and thus needed to be recorded and preserved for posterity.
c.1925-42 – when England was strong enough to withstand the effects of war on the home front.
c.1982-93 – when ideas about celebrating England’s heritage served the need for unity
Common themes throughout are the mass production of entertainment for tourists; avoiding anxiety by seeing the landscape in a proscribed manner and constantly remaking the idea of a stable England. In other words, Taylor is presenting his material as examples of moments, “that impel people to use landscape to define themselves and establish their security and sense of belonging to the nation”.
The short section we were asked to read is actually in the middle of the book (p198-205) so that is another explanation why I found it harder to grasp Taylor’s thesis. I think he’s misleading about George Orwell because he gives the impression that Orwell had written about ‘mystical sense of the past” etc which he hadn’t in his essay. Although Taylor bases his book around tourists, this particular section has nothing to do with tourists and is more concerned with the use of earlier travel books or new images to remind the population of the land that was being fought for, ‘to preserve the historical nature of English freedoms in an English landscape’ – with photographs illustrating the difference between the country and fascist Germany and their ways of life; to show how the country was being mobilised against the threat and to suggest that civilians were as vigilant in defence as the military.
George Orwell (1941) The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (accessed at http://orwell.ru/library/essays/lion/english/
I have read some of Orwell’s work previously but not this particular essay which is in three parts. I found myself nodding agreement at much of the writing whilst having to keep bearing in mind that this essay was written in 1941 and much has changed since then in the make-up of the country and what Orwell refers to as the ‘common people’.
Part I: England Your England concerns the need to recognize “the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty” and that divisions between nations are “founded on real differences of outlook”. Although England is made up of many different types of people there is something distinctive and recognizable in English culture and Orwell lists some of these attributes. Orwell makes the point that, Just because patriotism is all but universal and not even the rich are uninfluenced by it, there can be moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf.
Part II: Shopkeepers at War comments on Socialism, stipulating that to “Common ownership of the means of production” one must add approximate equality of incomes, political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. Orwell looks at the German version of Fascism – being a form of capitalism that borrows from Socialism, ‘just such features as will make it efficient for war purposes’ and then at the difference between Socialism and capitalism. This is not a difference of technique but needs a complete shift of power. “England is a family with the wrong members in control. The necessary moves cannot be made while the social structure of England remains what it is and all talk of ‘equality of sacrifice’ is nonsense.
Part III: The English Revolution. My understanding of this part is that Orwell believes old classifications/distinctions between Right and Left broke down when Picture Post was first published. “They merely point to the existence of multitudes of unlabelled people who have grasped within the last year or two that something is wrong”. At that time he believed that the Labour Party would never be able to achieve a major change because it had never possessed a genuinely independent policy; being primarily a party of trade unions; meaning it was directly interested in the prosperity of British capitalism. Orwell then looks at Fascism Communism and other Marxist parties and why they didn’t take hold and moves onto his view of an English Socialist movement that can, “swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices, and let the working class see that they have something to fight for”. He looked to the rise of a specifically English Socialist movement that would really touch the heart of the English people and proposed a six-point programme to achieve this.
I know that I’ve taken much time (too much) over this exercise and still haven’t finished Taylor’s book which does tend to wander backwards and forwards between the three periods he covers. I found two reviews of the book; the American Historical Review refers to his ‘absorbing and very readable text”, whilst also commenting, “The jumps in chronology are unsettling, and the thematic links at times seem rather tenuous” . Another comments “British art historian Taylor engages in a mission of political correctiveness, following the Marxist credo that human activity can best be explained by the forces of oppressive economic and class structures”, whilst acknowledging that he has, “done much detailed research into some valuable and overlooked elements of photographic history”.
Taylor looks at tourism and the public face of England as it were, and he provides much photographic evidence including the attempts of some photographers to subvert bucolic notions of landscape. So far as photography is concerned there is certainly a project there for looking at what’s happened since the book was written and how landscape photography is being used to promote or subvert an image of a pastoral/mythical England. I recently read an blog article that was written in 2016 and has recently re-gone the rounds of social media. “Behind Brexit lies a yearning for a past we destroyed” outlines what was gained after WW2 and what has changed for the worse. I am questioning how much of patriotism is based upon remembrance of a better past and how much on something else. Does it also stem from feeling grounded in a community, having a sense of belonging and feeling at home? What is it like for a stranger, a refugee not a tourist to come to this place and leave country and home behind knowing they might never return there? What is the nature of ‘Home”.
Taylor, j. (1994) A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourists’ Imagination. Manchester University Press