Sometimes the world feels small. And never does it feel smaller than in England.
In New Model Island, Alex Niven’s late 2019 manifesto-cum-essay (as in manifesto slash essay, not manifesto-semen-essay1) from Repeater Books (the second publisher set up by Mark Fisher and friends after they – I presume accidentally – sold off the Zero brand name and back catalogue to people with fewer qualms about the [tbf morally bankrupt] capitalist system), there is offered a solution to the problems and the myth of England: England doesn’t exist – and England has never really existed.
So, Niven posits: let’s stop pretending and bloody regionalise.
Niven traces the history of the idea of England and its conflagration with Britain from waaaaay before the Roman invasion and through to the now. Using Alton Towers and the crumbling Neo-Gothic mansion the theme park is built around (and named after!) as an opening microcosm, Niven goes on to discuss literature, music and the arts more broadly as he recounts England’s (or Britain’s) bland-but-violent roll out of a bland-but-violent empire, the existence of which was then used as a weird masochistic whip to claim the “dilution” of the imperial identity.
(He does it more eloquently than I summarise it.)
I think Niven is right.
I think Ireland will soon be reunified, Scotland will soon regain its independence and I agree that this will have terrible repercussion on all of the bits of England [and Wales] that don’t happen to be London or places that are “commutable” from London.
Using some pretty compelling arguments, Niven suggests a governmental fracturing of the islands of Britain and Ireland (and all the other tiny islands that always get forgotten – Niven makes a point of repeatedly using the [accurate] word “archipelago”) along the lines of its ancient kingdoms, with regional centres built up and a massive, new capital, constructed at Carlisle to rival London, which would pull money and jobs out of the South.
When written starkly like this, it sounds extreme and impossible, but the way Niven’s theory is justified and explained makes it sound not only possible but necessary and likely. Short of regurgitating his arguments or arguing that his suggestion of Carlisle – close to (but not in) Niven’s native North East – is biased and that the real new capital should be in the Potteries – close to (but not in) my native Worcestershire – I don’t have much to add.
There’s also a lot of praise here for Gen X posterboy intellectual, Mark Fisher. As much as I wanted to skim over this, New Model Island was written after Fisher’s tragic death and Niven’s lionising of his colleague clearly comes from a place of genuine personal grief.
And – get ready to smugly drink your sparkling water or foul IPA, harder left friends – given how compelling Niven’s ideas are, and their acknowledged ideological links to Fisher’s, I feel that – rather than continuing to focus on Fisher’s clueless gushing over terrible music2 – I should instead borrow the copy of Capitalist Realism that’s on my lover’s bookshelf and give it a not-ungenerous reading.
A great book, recommended.
My comment at the start about England (which I know doesn’t exist) being small was something New Model Island reminded me of in a strangely practical way: Niven kept mentioning people (writers, thinkers, journalists) who I know.
By this I don’t just mean people I “know of” or people who I’ve interacted with on Twitter, but people I’ve been published alongside and, mentioned as a “left wing commentator”, the privately-educated son of a hard right former Conservative MP whose massive Pimlico townhouse I once – in another life, in another world – visited for a dinner party.
One is never allowed to forget, in England.
One is never allowed to advance.
Niven’s book ends hopefully, commenting on the success of the Labour Party in the 2017 general election, but obviously I’m reading this after (though the book was published just before) the bleakly massive Tory victory of December 2019. Eurgh.
The little Englanders won’t let their fictional past and their hypocritical victim complex die. During the rest of this current parliament, England can only get worse.
Will it ever get better?
To be honest, I fucking doubt it.
But if it ever does, it should probably take some of Alex Niven’s advice…
1. Niven does write about fathering a child, so there is definitely some offstage sex implied here, but nothing at all graphic. ↩
2. A non-ironic love of the same dreadful eighties rock music is the one [humanising?] flaw in the near-perfect Fernando Sdrigotti. He’ll find this comment because I think he Googles himself. If you were him, you probably would too!↩