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Julian Barnes: England, England

ulian Barnes actually dips his feet into situationism in this novel, quoting (though not naming him) from the legendary Guy Debord, co-founder, with Raoul Vaneigem, of situationism, the key political philosophy of the twentieth century, and author of the seminal work of the twentieth century – The Society of Spectacle. Indeed, if you have not read this work, you are probably wasting your time with much of the best of twentieth century literature. Debord summed up the twentieth century beautifully – Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit.

Barnes cites Debord’s views on representation – the idea that there is nothing real left anymore, only representations of what is real. To put it simply, he was referring to the Disneylandization of the world. Debord took this argument further, pointing out that the triumph of capitalism was its ability to take anything authentic, including opposition to capitalism, and turn it into a commodity and a spectacle. This is the idea that Barnes plays around with in this novel and uses, as his basis for representation, the idea of England. His thesis is that the England that tourists and other foreigners (sometimes) love (he gives us a list in case we are unsure, starting with the royal family) is merely a representation of what some people think England might have been and bears no resemblance to the tawdry, second-rate nation it has become. (The novel is set in the future but clearly is meant as a critique of contemporary England.)

The novel is the story of Martha Cochrane, an Englishwoman who grows up in the country. Her father leaves her mother for another woman when she is young and they do not meet again till she is grown up. Cut to Martha aged forty when she goes to work for Sir Jack Pitman, a super capitalist who effectively decides to take over the Isle of Wight and convert it to a playground for the rich where all of England is recreated – from the royal family to the white cliffs of Dover and with recreations of all British myths and pseudo-history from Robin Hood to the Battle of Britain. Martha and her consort Paul engineer Sir Jack’s downfall with an astute bit of sexual blackmail (Barnes is good at slipping in bits of English culture that are to readily found on the Isle of Wight) and take over but Sir Jack gets his revenge, particularly when the representation becomes too real. Cut to Martha as an old woman, living in real England where they are trying to recreate a real village but failing to do so. Barnes then slips into mild dystopic fiction about the downfall of England into some sort of nostalgic mediocrity (isn’t that where we came in?), which doesn’t really work.

Barnes does a pretty good job at both skewering England and its slide into mediocrity and how its glories are all in the past. There is little that escapes his acid pen. Moreover, in his attacks on the Disneylandization of the world (he never actually mentions Disney), he is not averse to critiques of the Americans and, of course, the French, though it is the French and Scots that seem to come out on top at the end. But I still consider The Society of Spectacle to be the more essential reading.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Jonathan Cape