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Claire Westall: Report on the Literature of an Independent England Conference

Saturday 6th November 2010, University of Warwick

Organised by Dr Michael Gardiner (Warwick) & Dr Claire Westall (York)
Sponsored by Warwick’s Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies and Humanities Research Council, Edinburgh University Press and Manchester University Press

This agenda-setting one-day interdisciplinary conference attracted a diverse mixture of participants, in terms of geography, disciplinarity, and seniority. Speakers came from the US, continental Europe and Ireland as well as within the United Kingdom, and their expertise ranged across political science, literature, history and religion. Many situated their work specifically at the emerging crossover of political and literary thinking about England. We were also joined by political campaigners, academic researchers, postgraduate students and, encouragingly, a good number of English undergraduates who were keen to build on their understanding of England’s position in relation to their study of Devolutionary literature.

The day began with a full and detailed Keynote Address by Professor Arthur Aughey (University of Ulster) who, building on his work in The Politics of Englishness (MUP, 2007), moved to critically unpack the ‘anxiety’ of Englishness and the dominant modes, including modes of conversation, being used to represent and interrogate English identities. His work in this area is being developed in a collection that he is currently co-editing with Dr Christine Berberich, who also spoke at the conference, to be published with MUP.

The first panel, entitled ‘The Politics of England and English Literature’, was indicative of the range of perspectives drawn together by the event, and set the terms for the reconsideration of English politics from a literary-cultural perspective. Anthony Barnett – one of the country’s most insightful and experienced democracy campaigners and founder of openDemocracy – contextualised the slippage between Britain and England and the lingering uncertainties this causes for the political reformers of England. His contribution became key as the day continued and the nuanced breadth and contemporary awareness of his thinking was a particular strength in the closing discussion. Dr Andrew Mycock (Huddersfield University) provided a precise and clearly explained survey of the rise of English national sentiment, specifically post-1998, and of the terminological grounding required for considerations of English independence, issuing a warning against the rise of ‘victimhood nationalism’ seen within certain post-colonial versions of Englishness. Finally, under the title ‘English Literature as Ideology’, Dr Michael Gardiner (Warwick University) brought these issues to bear upon the discipline of English Literature by offering a substantial critique of English Literature’s historical reliance upon a Burkean principle of cultural value. He argued that gradually, and specifically after empire, England has risen against the nationless state of the UK, which was once an effective deliverer of ideology, largely through English Literature. Demonstrating that as England-the-place becomes more vital, paradoxically the British methodology of English Literature gets harder to maintain, he advocated a new, post-British literary discipline, which is both more national and more diverse, and focuses its attention on the national experience of England.

Following a busy and lively informal lunch the second panel, ‘Englishness, National Identity and Authors of the Canon’, was an intense four-paper offering. Professor Margaret Tudeau-Clayton (University of Neuchâtel) presented a summative explanation of the thinking behind a collection entitled This England, That Shakespeare (Ashgate 2010) which she co-edited with Professor Willy Maley. Dr Jo Carrthurs (University of Bristol) drew on her theological expertise to read the socio-cultural assumptions embedded within Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and demonstrated how the Protestant aesthetic of simplicity, replicated in these two canonical works directly effected discourses of Englishness which have, more recently, been deployed against Islam. Dr Simon Featherstone (De Montfort University), author of Englishness: Twentieth-Century Popular Culture and the Forming of English Identity (EUP, 2009), assessed the impact of A. J. Cook, miner and trade union leader during the General Strike, positing that by placing A. J. Cook alongside D. H. Lawrence, and comparing their activities on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border in the Summer of 1926, a comparative case study could be used to enable an informative questioning of the resources for national re-imagination, and to illuminate the cultural continuities and discontinuities between English literature, politics and social history. Wrapping up this panel, Dr Anthony Bateman (De Montfort University) spoke about the canon of English cricket literature via the writing of Neville Cardus, examining cricket’s role in the creation and imperial exportation of ‘mythic’ ideas of English pastoralism and ruralism. The panel questioned not only the position and value of canonical construction of Englishness but also worked to extend the exposure of the imagined pastoral idyll of English national identity.

The late afternoon was comprised of two smaller panels and a concluding discussion. Panel three, ‘Speaking for England and of Dystopias’, included a dynamic and entertaining reading of the novel Speak for England (2005) by its author Dr James Hawes (Oxford Brookes University). Hawes also raised wider issues about the global deployment of English as a language, contrasting it with a broad range of other tongues, including French, German and Spanish, and sparked a debate which built on the terms of the morning’s panels. Dr Christine Berberich (University of Portsmouth) gave a detailed and polished reading of Speak for England and Rupert Thompson’s Divided Kingdom (2005), analysing their deployment of ‘invented traditions’ and depictions of dystopian police states that suggest specific historical problematics and reverberate with contemporary anxieties about a national identity in flux. In panel four, ‘Questioning the Contemporary and Everyday’, Dr Graham MacPhee (University of West Chester) co-editor of Empire and After (EUP, 2007), spoke of the complexities embedded within (Enoch) Powellism and of the continuing imperial ties which influence understanding of England and Englishness, as well as making a sophisticated and controversial case about the binding of England and Britain. Finally, the postgraduate researcher Anna Rettberg (University of Giessen) addressed the working of Englishness and the relationship to Britain within novels branded as ‘Black British’ – Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000), Monica Ali's Brick Lane (2003) and Robin Yassin-Kassab's The Road from Damascus (2008).

The conference closed with an open debate, drawing together speakers and delegates, with Graham MacPhee’s paper prompting numerous responses and efforts being made to bridge the political and literary-cultural in theoretically nuanced and interesting ways. What was noted by many delegates was the way internationally-noted scholars in the field were thinking alongside and in conjunction with younger scholars and students. The conference underlined the pressing need for England’s post-devolutionary and post-imperial position to be further theorised, and for models arising to be applied to the discipline of English Literature.

The conference organisers would like to thank all the speakers for their papers and individual contributions to the day’s programme. We hope we meet again soon. They would also like to thank Sue Dibben, of the HRC, the English Department, particularly its Chair Professor Catherine Bates for her support, EUP and MUP.

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