Question of identity ALAN POWERS Landscape and Englishness by David Matless. Reaktion Books, 1998. 324pp. £25
The word 'landscape' has been acquiring extra layers of metaphorical meaning in the Post-Modern age. Its adoption as a symbol for society as a whole has good precedents in early modern culture, and geography - once seen as an anorak subject - has lately made important interdisciplinary links within the humanities, being reinvented as 'cultural geography'. This is the best book so far on the difficult subject of the interpretation of landscape in its widest sense in the middle years of the twentieth century in England, but, like Patrick Wright's The Village that Died for England (aj 18.5.95), which covered some of the same ground in a more headlong motion, the loose ends are still hanging from the tapestry and the shapes are hard to see.
The book is in four parts, the first two dealing with the inter-war period, the third with the effects of the Second World War and the third with the early post-war, finishing with the Festival of Britain. Thankfully, Matless resists the temptation to play for laughs or to condemn in a voice of political correctness, but shares the present widespread uneasiness about discussing the concept of Englishness in any but negative terms. The authorial voice is pleasantly informal and direct, but never declares where it is 'coming from'.
A classification and periodisation of differing attitudes to Englishness is needed to construct an objective frame of reference, which then needs to be cross-referenced to other European countries, about which over-broad assumptions tend to be made by scholars in this field. The First World War created a trauma over national identity throughout Europe, and radicalism often took conservative forms that look similar to Fascism. As John Lucas wrote of the poet-composer Ivor Gurney in The Radical Twenties, 'Gurney eagerly desired a radically changed England, a nation which honoured 'the dearness of common things'.'
Matless breaks new ground in acknowledging that English preservationists and planners in the 1920s and 30s were in favour of technical and social modernisation in the countryside, and few wanted to keep things as they were. Many of them held a vision of a post-industrial society which was more prescient than it seemed at the time. Modern architecture preferred a pictorial landscape to a productive or genuinely democratic one, and found a natural alliance with the vision of sweeping empty country which still stands as the image of England. Opening his book with Potter Heigham, a little plotland arcadia on the Norfolk Broads, Matless shows how this alternative landscape of individualism has consistently been suppressed by authority.
Matless's method is one of synecdoche rather than grand narrative, taking the part as an image of the whole. This is perhaps too similar to Patrick Wright's essentially journalistic approach. Artefacts of middlebrow culture like book jackets and illustrations dominate the visual evidence which he presents. The thoughts of the urban intelligentsia with more than a foot in the country, such as Geoffrey Grigson, a sharp left-wing intellectual with a passion for local history and botany, could have provided a counterbalance to some of the dottier figures whom Matless puts on parade. The work of professional landscape designers like Geoffrey Jellicoe and Sylvia Crowe is also omitted from this account, but it was important in filtering nostalgic sentiments through a Modernist sensibility to inspire a new creative art form. Rather than using the overtly symbolic Festival of Britain to conclude the book, Matless might have taken Harlow New Town as a test of landscape and Englishness reconfigured through Modernism, where architecture as 'fine art' is subordinated to 'the dearness of common things'.
If 'landscape' is a depersonalised synonym for society, then it is not surprising that a medium-length book cannot say it all. Is there some missing methodological net in which to catch this elusive subject? Is it a life's work, to be achieved in terms of an accretion of essays and occasional pieces, as with the American writer J B Jackson? It is an exciting moment of development in the discipline of cultural geography when a book like this, whatever its shortcomings, gives such evident signs of vitality and promise of more still to come.
Alan Powers is an architectural historian