December 09, 2006

Culture Wars

Matthew Sinclair has replied in his usual courteous and rational way to a post here about the way that leftwingers seem to be at the centre of the production of plays, films and books. He agrees in my muddling of the picture and complicating of the ideas involved- he also agrees with me that 18 Doughty Street were a little un-nuanced in their discussions of the issue. But he does suggest ways in which he thinks that the cultural left have appropriated the image of Britain- particularly he suggests this with relevance to the past.

Matthew asks some rather good questions- why no films about Trafalgar, about Hastings, about the pageantry of British history- why no film for example about Britain freeing the slaves or no films about the Second World War. Why concentrate on World War One and not World War Two? Why concentrate on miners and doubt in the north and not Thatcherite prosperity in the South?

I would agree with Matthew that we do live in an increasingly ahistorical culture- not just on the right I hasten to add, one of the most interesting things about the change in generations in the left is the loss of historical emphasis. Go back to Michael Foot and Tony Benn, and you hear evocations of the Peasant's Revolt, English Revolution and movements for suffrage. Come forward to now and you don't hear that rhetoric at the moment at all. But there is something more to this than merely the loss of historical perspective and its something worth seeing.

Part of what Matthew wants to recreate is a kind of filmic lense on British history, to capture coronations and ceremony. The reason that Britons don't seem to do that in my view doesn't have a particularly left wing bias to it but is a consequence of our peculiar political system. Because we have pageantry embedded within a system of government- a royal around whom ceremony and defference naturally gravitates- there isn't the same appetite say there is in the United States for national pageantry. The weight of both monarchy and history is an ever present I think on those that produce culture- don't forget that they unlike many of their consumers are bred on a diet of Austen and Milton, for them there are no shortage of rightwing views, its just those views are historical (though of course most of the views attributed to them are attributed falsely and the labels used anachronistically). The crushing weight both of history and of monarchy combine, especially with those older whose formative years were lived in a more formal culture, to produce an atmosphere of debunking. Unlike in America where liberals are patriotic but are able to invent meanings for events even for their own young country, in the UK there is always this stifling sense of the past, stifling sense of ceremony which means that the left has in the main sought to look to the excluded for its heroes or in the manner of Strachey and Wilde to satirise its social superiors.

I'm not quite getting where I want to get in answer to Matthew's acute dissection of my rather inferior ramblings but I think it is in the nature of British society and the constitution of British ceremony that you need to look for the particular absense of historical films in particular. I would say that this isn't neccessarily a constant- remember that Olivier made some superb adaptations of Shakespeare, as more recently has Branagh, there have been films about Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax and the monarchy itself recently. The Second World War is untreated though aspects of Chicken Run might be seen as an attempt at a description of Britain in the war- attitudes to the US and everything like that.

An interesting post from Matt- my first response here is undeveloped but I hope I'm getting to something in pointing to this cultural legacy which defines in many ways what is happening now.