Friday, 8 May 2015

Digging the English landscape of radicalism and rebellion

"The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility ... and it had been used with no moderate hand." Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott.

This was at one time to be a lengthy treatise on the noble tradition of English radicalism and rebellion woven into the history of the landscape in times past and still abroad. However, energy feeling diminished and lacklustre in the wake of the election result, it has become more of a modest poultice to salve the wounded progressive heart; a sketch of rememberings and reminders.

A wake indeed. In the afterword to his visceral story of doomed English resistance to the brutal annexation by William, Duke of Normandy (or rather Guillaume le Batard), The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth laments that "The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation's history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects". And at times like these, as the Bullingdon Club cements its neo-Norman hold on the levers of power and influence, does it not feel as though we have been waking up to groundhog day ever since? Held in a constant state of arrested development by the descendants (both real and in spirit) of William's blood-soaked and avarice-filled retinue. Even now, we are unable to free ourselves from the Norman yoke; fighting amongst ourselves, bitterness endemic, hope shrinking. Farage and the UKippers as rebellion? What a fucking joke.

But there is a counterpoint to all this defeatism; to the passive-reactionary Little Englander 'musn't grumble' mind-set (and away from the heady but combustible mix of Scottish progressiveness and nationalism). Thankfully England, as a temporal, geographical and imaginative entity, is as awash with ragged energy and free-thinking as it is held back by a veneer of respectable timidity and dothing of its cap to those Norman shadow-walkers. Rebels with a cause, pioneers of social justice and artists with a conscience abound throughout history.

So harness the radical spirit of Englishness ...

Green men, wild men of the woods, silvitica,

Hereward the Wake,

Wat Tyler and the Peasant's Revolt,        Jack Cade,              John Dee,

The New Model Army,             Gerard Winstanley,

Tolpuddle Martyrs,      The Quakers,        Thomas Paine,           The Diggers,
                       John Clare,                      The Chartists,           

    William Cobbett,                                                       Charles Dickens,

William Blake and Jerusalem,

     William Morris,        Bertrand Russell,          The Independent Labour Party,

Aleister Crowley,                           Emily Pankhurst and the Suffragettes,

Trades Union Congress,              Peter Warlock,                        George Orwell,

                              The Kinder Scout Trespass,

Clement Attlee and 1945,       National Parks,                       CND,

E.P. Thompson,             Eric Hobsbawm,

            Lindsay Anderson,      Ken Loach,           Alan Clarke, 
 David Rudkin,

     Billy Bragg,        Mark Thomas,                                 

Julian Cope,             

Colin Ward,                         Benjamin Zephaniah,  

The Poll Tax Riots,

 'Rooster' Byron,    

                    Caroline Lucas,                  Common Ground,

         The Dark Mountain Project,                             Jeremy Deller,

PJ Harvey,          Owen Jones,

         (Who knows, maybe even) Russell 'don't vote' Brand ... 

This spirit, this genius rebellio, is esoteric, not always progressive; it waxes and wanes in the popular consciousness, but it's always there under the surface, ready to spring. In the words of David Horspool in his survey of The English Rebel: "Above all, English rebellion isn't exceptional. It is what has happened in this country for at least a thousand years, and we can safely predict that it will carry on happening." 


  1. Thanks for this reminder. Well over a third of the adult population of the UK has probably been feeling pretty miserable since last Friday so I don't think we are alone. And I absolutely agree there is a powerful, perennial radical tradition in England (different traditions in Wales, Scotland and Ireland), one that has often been deeply rooted in the land, although I think my list would be a little different to yours. But the main thing I wanted to observe was that history and the landscape bear witness to the inexorability of change - the struggles of the fourteenth century were about serfdom and famine, those of the seventeenth century about limiting the power of the crown, in the nineteenth century the rise of democracy, and the twentieth century universal education and health. Raymond Williams was, I think, right to insist that for all the losses and defeats, today is better than yesterday. Admittedly his 'long revolution' is very long indeed, but it's better than no revolution at all, even if none of us are likely to live to see its completion.

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