We’ve heard a lot about the “Big Society” in recent years. Yet for centuries some of England’s most ardent defenders have been following the example of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, who famously praised England as a “little world” threatened by change and, perhaps, dissolution too.
What are we to make of this tendency towards miniaturisation? This lecture will find its earlier examples in the defence of rural England mounted by William Cobbett in the 1820s, in the deindustrialized English utopia imagined by William Morris at the end of the same century, and in the defiantly parochial arguments of G.K. Chesterton, who was among the “Little Englanders” who opposed the Boer War at the beginning of the twentieth century. It will pursue its investigation through the paintings of Stanley Spencer, who found the universe in the small Berkshire village of Cookham, and through the fictional worlds of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s “the Shire”.
It will consider the work of various writers who have engaged the theme more recently, including J.G.Ballard, Nicola Barker and Will Self, and also the bucolic rural scene that opened Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” at the London Olympics this summer. In some versions, this impulse is evasive , regressive and exclusive. But there is much more to be said about it than that – especially in a present defined by greatly increased mobility and mixture of populations, by devolutionary pressure within the British state, and by global economic and technological trends that appear to be making “little worlds” of all localised cultures.
Patrick Wright is Professor of Literature and Visual & Material Culture in the English Department at King’s College London. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s paintings and drawings in 2001, and has recently completed a collaboration with the film-maker Patrick Keiller on a research project entitled ‘The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image’, the main outcome of which was Keiller’s film “Robinson in Ruins”.
His books include On Living in an Old Country (1985), A Journey Through Ruins (1991), The Village that Died for England (1995), Tank: the Progress of a Monstrous War Machine (2000), Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War (2007) and Passport to Peking: a Very British Mission to China. (2010). He is presently working on a study of Uwe Johnson, and the years this post-war German novelist, already famous for his writings about the divided Germany, chose to spend living in Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey in North Kent.
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Image credit: Himley Hall derelict model village, Tim Dunn