Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of London yet retains a sense of cultural and geographical isolation, has provided the space for the development of radically new social, political and architectural experiments. These include both planned communities, driven by ideological, political and moral motivations, as explored in a fascinating chapter on communitarianism by Ken Worpole, as well as more ad hoc settlements such as the plot lands, initially developed as DIY country escapes yet ultimately and illicitly settled more permanently, which are visited by Gillian Darley.

Radical ESSEX rises to the provocation, set out by writer Tim Burrows early on in the book, that ‘to infer anything intellectual from the county has at times seemed like a radical act’. A real highlight, therefore, is the chapter on the University of Essex, one of a 1960s generation of ‘new’ universities, and the way it embraced the new not just architecturally, but in the types of subjects that were taught and its approaches to teaching them, which ultimately aimed to generate students capable of thinking for themselves. As the chapter notes, this quickly resulted in a reputation for radicalism and free thinking – students set up their own ‘Free University’, and played an active part in political and social protests.

In general, the place of modernity in shaping Essex comes across strongly in Radical ESSEX – from the marsh-draining techniques, borrowed from the Dutch, that enabled the land to be reclaimed from the sea, to the bold modernism of planned towns and estates such as Silver End, Bataville and Frinton Park. However, modernism is also emblematic of the tensions encapsulated within the county. Although it’s home to some of the earliest and most innovative built expressions of modernism in the UK, which rightly take their place in the book, Essex is also a county of suburban sprawl, and an early adopter of the increasingly prevalent out-of-town, shed-type genre of architecture. In his chapter, architect Charles Holland makes the case that architectural modernism both began and ended in Essex: the county ultimately rejected modernism with the influential Essex Design Guide of 1973, which promoted a return to vernacular architecture and traditional building materials.

Essex has also been shaped by movement, particularly as expressed in successive waves of migration. No story of Essex would be complete without a discussion of the Essex new towns, built to house former East Enders post-WWII, and we’re also reminded of the arrival of the Windrush at Tilbury docks and the large numbers of international students attracted to study at the University of Essex. It continues today as young people are driven from the capital as London’s living costs become increasingly prohibitive for those looking to set up home or raise a family.

Although – or perhaps because – it’s not regarded as being conventionally picturesque, the look and feel of the book makes a feature of the county’s distinctive landscape, in which oozy, marshy creeks and inlets, which ebb and flow as the tide changes, leave behind large, shifting banks of mud. Instead of marbling, we have watery imprints, saturated in surreal colours, like an aerial or satellite view of the county gone psychedelic, aptly capturing the county’s strangeness. Catherine Hyland’s photos, which run throughout the book, on the other hand, offer a gentle, soft-edged view of the county and its architecture, old and new: remote country church and brutalist university campus alike are imbued with a hazy, pleasant familiarity, as if Essex is a county where anything is possible, and it’s always a bright early summer day.

Natalie Bradbury

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Pillar of Hercules

Nicholas Rankin – Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler (Faber and Faber, 2017)

There are times when the exchange of a single syllable for another would have resulted in an entirely different history of the world. On 23rd October 1940, Hitler asked Franco for permission to move his Panzer divisions through Spain in order to attack Gibraltar. Franco said “no”.

The simple exchange of a “no” for a “yes”, Nicholas Rankin argues in his new book, would have had profound consequences.

Standing at a whopping 650+ pages, Defending the Rock is a magisterial defense of Gibraltar’s importance during the second world war. He combines individual stories with tactical analyses, cultural insights with empirical data. It’s meticulously researched and pleasingly written. I read the book over my Christmas break and barely put it down to carve the turkey.

Rankin traces the peninsula’s contested history prior to the war, the better to situate us once the war begins. And by “before the war”, I mean long before. We begin with the peninsula’s geological origins.

During the Zanclean flood, when the Mediterranean first filled with water, the power of the inundation turned the Rock on its side. The resulting peak, known to the Greeks as one of the two Pillars of Hercules, proved militarily impregnable for a whole host of inhabitants, from the Moors to pirates to, in the seventeenth century, the British.

The British Empire is an essential element of the Gibraltar story. Why else would anyone want to hold on to such a tiny piece of limestone sticking out into the sea? The Spaniards never wanted it, nor, really, did the Moors; that’s how a gang of drunken British sailors were able to take the Mountain of Tariq in the first place. “Jabal Tariq” became “Jabaltar” then “Gibraltar” through rum-soaked Anglophone repetition. The peninsula found its purpose as a place to park boats on their way down to Africa, or heading round the Horn to the Raj.

After the opening of Suez, Gibraltar became even more important. Many Empires have laid claim to the Mediterranean over the years – the Romans called it “our sea”, as did Mussolini – but it was the British Navy, stationed at Gibraltar, Suez and Malta, who could really claim to rule those warm and war-tossed waves.

The Napoleonic Wars brought cannons and sappers, and the first closing of of the border to La Linea, the Spanish town next door. The Battle of Trafalgar was mere miles away and Gibraltar, underestimated as always, played a critical role.

As we cut to the second world war itself Rankin’s history appears to move between three historical levels. Firstly, the grand tactical maneuvers of the fighting forces. Secondly, the politics, internecine struggles and ultimate resilience of the Gibraltarian people. And finally, the surprising number of cultural figures who passed through the base at wartime and the ways it impacted their lives.

The Spanish Civil War, for example, brought famous spies and freedom fighters to Gibraltar, hoping to sneak over the border and join the fighting. Hitler and Mussolini first began their surreptitious campaign against the base using their support for Franco as a cover, and, in spite of many working class Gibraltarians supporting the Republicans, the peninsula became a haven for right wing royalists and Syndicalists cast out during the Falangist coup.

Rankin, whose other works include Churchill’s Wizards and Ian Fleming’s Commandos, two excellent books on wartime intelligence, combines a nuanced understanding of spycraft with an eye for a great story. My favourite of the many sneaky shenanigans depicted in the book was that of Mussolini’s frogmen, who drove two-man-operated self-propelled torpedoes across the bay from La Linea into the Naval Base.

Some mis-steered, others blew themselves up and some, perhaps more sensible, abandoned their torpedoes after guards began shooting into the water at them – only to then return the next week with new ones.

The man tasked with checking for mines beneath British ships, we are told, could barely swim. He was the only one mad enough to do the job, and it won him a George Cross.

Gibraltar was also the staging post for the controversial attacks on Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar. Rankin tells the unfortunate story of Churchill deciding the bombard the French fleet (turning the French against us but, he argues, securing the support of the Eastern Empire) through the sailors who had shared port facilities in Gibraltar only months before.

Before the war, it is worth recalling, Gibraltar was a staging post for all kinds of vessels. Hitler visited in the mid-1930s, and the mole was hung with swastikas in greeting.

Evelyn Waugh passed through on his way to a defeat at Dakar. The story of bureaucratic ineptitude, tactical folly and humiliating flight would provide the raw material for his masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.

He was not the only figure to flee to Gibraltar after a humiliating defeat. The Emperor Haile Selassie, ruler of Ethiopia and God Incarnate of the Rastafari, fled his nation after the invasion of Mussolini’s forces in 1935. No major power was willing to help independent Ethiopia in repelling Mussolini’s illegal invasion, and as Selassie abandoned his country the League of Nations was shown to be a paper tiger.

Only when setting foot on British soil in Gibraltar did the Emperor feel secure again. The British gave him a royal welcome, despite his now dethroned status. Respecting his deposed government would also set a precedent for our wartime relations with Free French, Free Polish and other governments-in-exile.

The everyday lives of Gibraltans and of their neighbours in La Linea are depicted with tremendous sympathy and understanding by Rankin. Although, comparable to other bases like Malta, the rock escaped the war relatively unscathed, he perfectly captures the tremendous tension that the war brought. Countless times the island was saved, sometimes by the heroism of its defenders, sometimes by the incompetence of the Axis, who were so obsessed with panzers and stukas that they left the theatre-defining control of the waves to the Brits.

It was the fear of the British Navy which lay behind Franco’s “no”. It was also his country’s tremendous poverty, which superseded his ideological commitments, and that a British/American blockade would exacerbate. It was also the advice of his generals, a number of whom, Rankin points out, were on the British payroll.

Vast sums were spent on bribing these crooked generals. Britain also met with international condemnation for its willingness to accept the Franco government after the Civil War ended. Both, in Rankin’s narrative, are political sacrifices made in the name of keeping Gibraltar free.

So what would have happened if Franco had said “yes”? Well, as an immediate consequence, the Axis would have controlled the Med. Malta would have fallen, as would Suez. The battles in the Middle East and over El Alamein could never have taken place. The “Empire beyond the seas,” who Churchill boasted would never surrender, may have never even joined the conflict; the journey around the Horn of Africa being too dangerous. Britain could have fallen before America even entered the war.

These are some dramatic “what ifs”. To live with such a daily threat above your head must have been chilling. To take their minds off things, the Gibraltans built tennis courts and erected a library between bomb craters.

Anthony Burgess, a favourite of ours here at the MRB, crops up towards the end of the book. He was stationed on Gibraltar near the end of the war. The fighting, by his arrival 1943, had reached mainland Europe. Burgess spent his time in the Educational Corps teaching the British Way and Purpose to hungover squaddies, visiting brothels in La Linea, making notes for his novel A Vision of Battlements, and debating the merits of Gibraltan independence.

Burgess, as he would in Malaya and Brunei, learned the language the better to immerse himself in local culture and, more importantly, to avoid spending time with British officials. He would later brag that, unlike James Joyce, he could speak the language of Molly Bloom: herself a Gibraltan by birth.

Defending the Rock is a tremendous book, one that turns a relatively obscure subject into the stuff of epic drama. It is compulsively readable, and justifies its length by combining multiple complex narratives into a satisfying, almost novelistic structure. It combines touching human stories and literary allusions in such a way that pacifistic readers like me will be hooked, while also containing plenty of wartime action for those of a militaristic bent. It’d also make a cracking present for dad.

Inspired by the subject matter, my review too has become rather long. Reduced to a single syllable, I’d say “yes” to this book.

– Joe Darlington

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.3

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

Burgess has been deemed a monstre sacré (by someone unimportant), which, of course, he is. Has been said to write with “a badness at once so surprisingly defiant and so exceedingly obvious” (by someone else ridiculous). It is this defiance and this haughtiness that make his reviews so bloody enjoyable.

Burgess cared greatly about language, and, with it, language’s herculean guardians; it’s male mothers: Nabokov, Hemingway, and Wilde. He wrote consistently on brothers Vladimir and Ernest, and, though Oscar was not so prolific within Burgess’ work, consideration of this third review of a great literary man makes a nice collection.

They are all men, of course. As a friend of mine quipped recently (and accurately), “the only woman Burgess ever writes about is his first wife”. He often focuses on masculinity. He discusses Hemingway’s manly stature, his sportsmanship, hairy chest, and cojones. He notes Wilde’s similarly manly stature, his manly drinking ability, and, of course, his manly love. He once even cited Hemingway’s plain style as “emasculated” in fact as “the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers” (appreciation of the word vauntedly well due).

Burgess speaks of each man in complimentary terms, though one may definitely sense some self-defensive reluctance. Years earlier in an interview with John Cullinan he denounced Nabokov as “unworthy to unlatch Joyce’s shoe” however it seems that over time Burgess grew a profound admiration of him. Perhaps longing for the bygone dandy. Needless to say, he produced innumerable writings on Nabokov, even stretching to say that he was “one of the few living writers I honestly admire and would, had I the equipment, like to emulate”. But it wouldn’t be a Burgess review without jabs such as this one: “He’s not afraid of being snobbish, which is a good thing because now he can afford it.”

We can easily deduce that Burgess had a soft spot for Hemingway, writing even more prolifically on the American writer than the aforementioned Russian. In the same Cullinan interview, he states that Hemmingway had a “curious freshness of vision”. In this article, previously unpublished, he repeats a lot of sentiments from other commentaries, but we get a more personal look in. He speaks of Hemingway as of an old friend.

The Wilde review (well, the Ellmann review, I guess) feels much more detached than the previous two, but we still experience a charming, while rational, air of respect. Burgess’ language is lovely and flowery in this one as though emulating Wilde’s own style. Words like “refulgent” knock into their partners, “imperial” in this case, prompting conscious, homonymic investigation in the reader – or at least, in me. His playfulness extends to the title of the piece: “Wilde with all Regrets”, which subverts the title of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Wild with all Regrets”. Owen’s title in turn lends its words from the Tennyson Poem “The Princess”. The line reads “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;” Considering Owen’s address of the poem to Siegfried Sassoon, together with Wilde’s homosexuality, we can assume that Burgess has enjoyed an educated little laugh. Oh, Mr Wilson, how clever you are. He calls Wilde “a great subject”.

But as he speaks of these men, I cannot help but perceive empathy fuelled by self-preoccupation. This is how I read too, so I don’t mind. When he speaks of Nabokov’s dandyism, the great struggle of originality that bequeathed itself upon Hemingway, the glitteriness of Wilde – it just sounds as though he is speaking of himself. Ever the aesthete, he defends not Nabokov’s dandyism but his own. Discussing Hemingway he says, “but life is life, and fiction is fiction, and it is sometimes dangerous for them to touch”. Really, John?! Was it dangerous for you? Burgess is known for “effortlessly reinventing” his past “or at least giving some of it a more satisfactory shape” in the same way that he accuses Hemingway. I think that he felt a kind of connection with these guys through language. In Urgent Copy he writes that self understanding requires “a concern with language” and that “only through the exploration of language can the personality be coaxed into yielding a few more of its secrets”. And perhaps he is revealing his own secrets by engaging with these writers.

Language is definitely of top concern in these three articles. He believed that language and wordplay should be of top concern to anyone. In the Hemingway piece, he quite greatly questions, “How can you explain to the great public that one of the most important things in the world is to invent a new way of saying things?” We really hear Burgess shouting not for Hemingway’s but his own, and, in fact, all writing. He defends Wilde as “unforgettable”, Nabokov as a transformer of language. So these men, these towering manly men, are also pillars of language – or it may be that they break those pillars with their huge manly fists. Yes. And Burgess wants them broken too. Some of the most poignant points made in these pieces are more of a hammer to the roots of literature than a comment on the writers themselves. Take this for example, “nobody cares about style, language, the power of the word.” I want to say that Burgess recognized lost brothers in his fellow writing men, and expressed a communal sigh on their behalves. He talks mainly about their lives outside of Literature, as he so condemns others for doing, and yet manages to say so much about the state of Literature as a whole.

Burgess identifies one main obstruction for his three boys: Scandal. The sodomy, the censorship, the suicide. The sin! And I think that he felt that a kindred scandal had been attached to him. Burgess says that this focus on the scandal of a writer’s life “continues to get in the way of sober appraisal of his literary achievement”. He certainly distanced himself from his own scandal, dare I speak the words, A Clockwork Orange. He wants Wilde “cleansed of scandal” and perhaps he sees himself as similarly dirty with notoriety. Perhaps we should engage with writing on its own terms. He may be arrogant and chauvinistic, and he may have a habit of mixing his dates up, but it seems that Burgess tried to adopt the role of valiant, though uncompromising, protector and defender of great literature.

– Blair James

Reviews covered

Last of the Literary Dandies

A Very Blasphemous Fallacy (Previously Unpublished)

Wilde With All Regret

Childhood on the Prairies

Keith Erwin Brower – Chronicles of the Glen: Childhood Anecdotes at Poplar Glen Farms (Friesen Press, 2017)

There is a long tradition, in both fiction and non-fiction, of writing about childhood on the Canadian Prairies. Perhaps most notable are William Kurelek’s A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer. Keith Erwin Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen is a welcome addition to this tradition. The book is a series of recollections about Brower’s early childhood on Poplar Glen Farms – a small family farm in eastern Alberta. There’s a natural ease to the writing and, no doubt, these stories were told and retold to children and grandchildren long before they were committed to paper. Each story carries a youthful fascination with the world. It’s infectious and as readers we share in the unfolding sense of discovery that each chapter brings.

The Canadian Prairies are defined by their seasons. There are blazing hot summers and prolonged, freezing winters. The depth of each season and their transition into one another provides a current that runs throughout the book: from the vulnerability of a small farm during a winter blizzard to picking wild mushrooms in the fertile soil of the barnyard following a summer rainstorm. Spring was a time to witness new life, whether among the livestock or in the wild. And weekly family walks through the surrounding pastures and forests were a key part of learning about nature as a child. To grow up on a farm is to grow up alongside animals and some become recurring characters in Brower’s book. There are the workhorses Lexi and Flicka, Teko the bull and Mona the mischievous dairy cow who nonetheless has a fondness for children.

Chronicles of the Glen depicts life in rural Alberta in the early 1950s. An important aspect of this book is the sweeping social and technological changes that Brower witnesses in the mid-twentieth century. The workhorses are eventually replaced with tractors, herd sires with artificial insemination and static threshing machines with combine harvesters. Yet, within all these changes Brower also describes the continuing ‘fine art’ of farming – from laying fences and building construction to rigging machinery for multiple uses. There’s a craft and ingenuity to it all. And as Brower illustrates each story these everyday practices (as well as everything else) are brought to life in his unique visual style.

Poplar Glen Farms is about 5km northwest of Wainwright, Alberta. I know the place well. My mother was born there and – full disclosure – Keith Erwin Brower is my uncle. I have many fond memories of the farm: rolling down the grassy slope in front of my grandparents’ house as a child, hockey games on the frozen pond in the sheep pen and playing in the fields and forests with my cousins. The crunch of snow underfoot while walking between houses on a crisp and starry winter night will be an abiding memory of Christmas on the farm. Throughout my childhood I had an ongoing internal debate over whether pasteurised milk or unpasteurised milk tasted better. I called them ‘town milk’ and ‘farm milk’. I’d think over the merits of each whenever I sat for breakfast around my grandparents’ table with a glass of ‘farm milk’ in hand. There’s no debate now. ‘Farm milk’ is the clear winner . . . I’m retreating into my own memories here. . . Reading this book by Uncle Keith is a reminder of the indelible link between place and memory in shaping who we are.

The town of Wainwright, Alberta was once home to Buffalo National Park which operated between 1909 and 1939. It was a state-backed attempt to preserve the plains bison (or buffalo) which were facing extinction at the opening of the 20th century. An initial herd of around 700 was brought in from Montana and within three decades the park had produced over 40,000 buffalo. However, Buffalo National Park became a victim of its own success as disease and starvation spread among the expanding herd within the bounded Park area. As Europe lurched into another war the Park was wound down and the site converted into a military base. The preservation of the plains bison speaks to a wider history of the Prairies. It’s a history wrapped up in colonialism and the devastation of peoples and cultures and wildlife. While the seasons continue to pass with seemingly eternal regularity, the Prairies have also witnessed three centuries of irrevocable change. The plains bison, for instance, will never migrate across the North American continent again. The literature on this history is as expansive as the Prairies themselves. My own reading is limited – a drop in the ancient ocean that once covered the area. Irene Ternier Gordon’s A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains offers insight into the everyday life of the Métis Peoples over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries – including the practical, cultural and eventual political significance of the plains bison. And Grant McKewan’s biography of John Ware details the life of one of Alberta’s most famous cowboys. John Ware was an African-American slave who, following the American Civil War, herded cattle across North America and eventually took up residence in what is now Alberta. Both these books depict a key period of transition in the history of the Prairies: after colonisation but before the expansion of the railway and wider settlement. Significantly, both books are also primarily based on oral history and testimony passed down through generations. Such shared stories form part of the connective tissue of the cultural history of the Prairies, whether as the living memory of pre-colonial Canada or as witness to lives lived in changing times. Brower’s book is another thread in this social fabric.

There is a certain power to childhood stories. They bring a simplicity to otherwise complex situations. And they are often imbued with a sense of awe. The title of Brower’s book is a clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. It’s a series of novels about children who discover an alternate, magical world. Narnia is full of adventure, excitement, danger and laughter. Yet, in Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen we’re reminded that such adventures don’t always need an imaginary realm. They are often right in front of us, in the here and now. Chronicles of the Glen is about the wonder of childhood and, ultimately, the joy of living.

References:

Kurelek, W., A Prairie Boy’s Winter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973)

_________, A Prairie Boy’s Summer (Toronto: Tundra Books, 1975)

Brower, J. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939 (Athabasca University Press, 2008)

Gordon, IT, A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2009)

McKewan, G. John Ware’s Cow Country (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1973)

Lewis, CS. The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Harper Collins, 1994)

– Mark Rainey