England Is in Crisis. Enter Sir Grayson Perry

Courtesy Channel 4

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The artist and knight of the realm is on a quest to save the nation from its worst tendencies

Every now and then, someone will decide that what English (or British) leftists really need is ‘a new progressive nationalism’ or a ‘new nationalism of the left’.

After all, we know that the UK is a basket case: a sad (and bad) old relic that’s probably going to finally, definitively fragment soon (thank God). Everyone knows that England, as one of the constituent parts of the union, sucks. Everything’s expensive, nothing works, and no-one seems to be able to do anything about it, usually because it always turns out that the means to do so are owned by a different country’s government, or else an aristocrat legally based halfway across the world. Everyone knows that the word ‘England’, and its symbols, have long been associated with the country’s very worst tendencies: racism, small-mindedness and a baffling deference to the people responsible for making the country a far worse place to be than it should be (a tendency which I’ve heard summed up with the phrase: ‘it’s shit, it’s meant to be shit, if you don’t like it, there’s the door’). And yet, for all that, there are some people – people, no less, who might conceivably be persuaded to vote Labour – who still seem to like England. And also, we have a football team these days that’s good again, and has Marcus Rashford in it, and he’s good, isn’t he? So… maybe we could do something with that?

Enter Sir Grayson Perry, the recently-knighted artworld big beast and television presenter, whose latest for Channel 4, Grayson Perry’s Full English (2023), sees him staging a roadtrip across the country’s various regions (‘South’, ‘Midlands’, and ‘North’) in an attempt to “figure out” the nation he comes from, has made himself a success in, and very much seems to like – even if he is, as a generally left-liberal type, a bit worried about some of the more regressive parts. And so the sometime Essex boy hops into a white van with a man named Kirk from Bradford, with whom he banters his way through encounters with England football fans, a guy who makes it his business to terrorise small boats, an order of druids, some people who trespass on country estates, and then fashion designer Pearl Lowe and her husband Danny Goffey (of Supergrass fame) for some reason. What emerges is, I suppose, a rich tapestry: sometimes the English are northern, sometimes they’re racists, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re pagans, and sometimes they were famous in the ’90s.

As television, it’s fine: a perfectly diverting piece of fluff, anchored by the lively, cackling Perry, who really is a very good presenter – irreverent but never overly shallow, merrily withering towards his various interviewees as if he’s leading an art theory seminar he suspects they haven’t done the reading for. But what does it actually have to say (if anything) about the nation it’s ostensibly about?

I’ve only watched the one episode (on ‘The South’) that’s been aired so far. But during this episode, some clear tendencies do emerge. Perry likes his nationalism ‘progressive’ (“open” and “reflecting the modern Britain,” as he puts it, as opposed to “closed” and “backward-looking”). Perry’s England is witnessed, in part, in a visit to the London borough of Lambeth, where he calls on a man, Jay, he previously met at an England game in Munich. For Jay, England just is the multicultural place he grew up in, not the Little Englander fantasy one might be able to sustain in the suburbs.

But while Perry has little truck with the idea that what defines England is (as we might say) ‘blood’, he does have more sympathy with the idea that we might be English because of our ‘soil’. For the druids he meets (in particular the head druid Greywolf, aka Philip), anyone can be English: regardless of whether you were born and grew up here, or just arrived here yesterday on a small boat. What matters, really, is your reverence for the land, and the spirits who populate it.

A similar point is expressed by the land trespassers he meets – whose own rituals might resemble the druids’ in their use of animal masks, but whose animus is much more nakedly political (according to the trespassers, just a tiny fraction of the English countryside is officially open to the country’s actual people: our proverbial “small, crowded island” very much the confection of the ruling class). Meanwhile, when Perry visits his home village of Bicknacre, the main draw is the single, stark remaining arch of the ruined Bicknacre Priory, and Perry talks of the “sense of history” that he has always felt suffusing the land (though even this history feels a bit cordoned-off these days: having been situated in an isolated spot, the arch is now surrounded by an ugly fence, seemingly to protect it from the overspill from newbuild homes).

More than anything else though, what seems to matter for Perry is that ‘Englishness’ be something we can participate in. This is why Perry likes what the druids are doing: he even calls their ceremony a “ritual of nationhood” (which seems a bit of a stretch, as there’s no real suggestion any of the actual druids think that this is what they’re up to). It’s also part of what he admires about Jay and the other football fans he meet, as they fashion their own St George’s crosses to pay tribute to their local football clubs, or late friends: in this, Englishness becomes something they can make themselves. Perry describes Englishness as a “costume”: with Pearl and Danny in Somerset self-consciously assuming an aesthetic of “tragic poshness”, playing at being the declining old-money landed gentry.

For Perry, Englishness might best be thought of as a sort of performance: a role that we might effectively choose to inhabit, and thus to a certain extent interpret for ourselves (perhaps there is an overlap with gender here – something that Perry has spent his life and career experimenting with). And here, obviously, it would seem that art might play a vital role: through art, the suggestion seems to be, we can make and remake, revitalise an otherwise stale and alienating sort of Englishness, for ourselves.

To which, I have a question: if Englishness really is just a costume, why ever should we want to put it on in the first place? Writer Alex Niven’s forthcoming The North Will Rise Again (2023) emphasises the role of art (and popular culture) in the formation of personal and community identity. But for Niven, as his earlier New Model Island (Repeater, 2019) makes clear, Englishness really is just an identity that pertains to a nation that sucks: a ‘historical curse’ felt by its inhabitants as a great ‘void,’ or lack, resulting in the insular, hateful mindset associated with many of our nation’s most convinced partisans (Niven’s argument is roughly that ‘England’ really just corresponds to the area of land conquered by the Norman barons who became our ruling class in 1066, before becoming the centre of a colonial Empire in the early modern period – it has never, strictly speaking, ‘belonged’ to its people). He emphasises the importance of a specifically regional identity – which in his forthcoming book encompasses the Northern provincial modernism associated with sometime Newcastle council leader T. Dan Smith; the ultimately doomed optimism of mid-’90s Kevin Keegan; the poetry of Basil Bunting; and the Manchester music scene of The Smiths, The Fall, The Stone Roses, Factory Records, and Frank Sidebottom.

If England might always and inherently suck, then for Niven that hardly means that everything here, everything English people have ever done, is unsalvageable. It’s just that most of the best things that have come out of England can be thought of as existing somehow in opposition to it: as more readily exemplifying, for instance, other, alternative identities (like ‘Northernness’, but also perhaps something like ‘being a Londoner’), that Englishness as such is used to silence. England will only serve those in power here, and not its people. But I’m not sure that this is an argument Grayson Perry, knight of the realm, on Channel 4, is ever likely to make.

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