Saturday, 2 June 2012

Patriotism, nostalgia and ebook escapism, by Jennie Walters

What will you be doing tomorrow? Will you be tuning in to watch the flotilla sailing up the Thames, throwing a street party with your neighbours, or pulling the duvet over your head and wishing you were in Alicante or Argentina or anywhere else that isn't festooned in red, white and blue? I've been thinking about patriotism and nostalgia a lot recently because my historical trilogy, 'Swallowcliffe Hall', is centred on an English country house at three pivotal moments in British history: 1890, 1914 and 1939. Also because I've leapt on the 'Downton Abbey' bandwagon with alacrity (although the series was published in print way before the TV programme appeared). Part of the reason why the books are selling here and in America, I'm sure, is because people love looking back to an era when life seemed well-ordered and certain, and everyone knew their place. We view country-house life like one big security blanket: a safe little microcosm compared to the scary outside world, run in the same way with the same traditions for hundreds of years - unlike today, when everything is changing so rapidly, and as soon as you've mastered Facebook, along comes Twitter.

So maybe I'm guilty of perpetuating the myth that things were better a hundred years ago, unless you had the misfortune to be born into the industrial working class. The only thing I can say in my defence is that the Swallowcliffe Hall books are told from the point-of-view of the servants; they were initially aimed at teens and my first heroines are two of the young kitchen- and housemaids who kept great houses running with hours of hard labour. But now I've embarked on writing some more Swallowcliffe stories from the aristocrats' point-of-view, and am having to get to know the house all over again from the other side of the green baize door. One huge joy of the process is the memoirs I've been reading about the  Edwardian era, written by the people who lived through it: books such as 'Seventy Years Young,'  by Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall, 'Period Piece' by Gwen Raverat, and 'Remember and Be Glad,' by Cynthia Asquith. The last title, in particular, is a beautifully-written tribute to the sheltering family home which offered peace and security after a hectic London season: 'The very timelessness of the place; its memory-stirring unanalysable smell; the anchoring sound of the church clock hourly breaking the silence that was so much more than the mere absence of noise - all these familiar things seemed to enfold me like wings.'
A plate celebrating Queen Victoria's
Golden Jubilee in 1887

It's also a book full of humour and wonderful characters: the author's mother, an hospitable hostess and tireless entertainer who found it hard to remember her children had grown up - '"Ices! Cincie, strawberry  ices!" she would exclaim when I was far advanced in middle age, in the exact tone of voice in which one says "Din din" or "Walkies" to a dog.'  Or her father, who burst out of his study one day to shout at the children, 'For heaven's sake be quiet! Can't you see I'm working like Hell!' Only for everyone to collapse in laughter (including himself) as they realized the book in his hand was a novel by P G Wodehouse.

One thing that emerges from Cynthia Asquith's book is the importance attached to conversation: 'Lively talk - talk which, however unpretentious and spontaneous, would yet be real discussion; never mere chatter.' Without radio, film and TV, let alone the Internet, people had to entertain each other - and they certainly threw some wonderful parties. Perhaps that's what I feel nostalgic for: the peace and quiet to concentrate on what really matters, on family and friends, on the beautiful country in which we live, on the customs and traditions that have shaped what we are today.

Republican or not, maybe tomorrow we should all switch off our phones, let Facebook look after itself and take some time out to celebrate both our roots in history and the branches we're stretching forth, however tentatively, in this exciting and fast-changing world - so much fairer and more tolerant than the past, but so much busier and more complicated too.

My grandmother and great-uncle Norman, who was killed in the Great War in 1916.
He appears on the cover of 'Grace's Story'


4 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

What is something special happening tomorrow then? Oh... yes... we have the Turriff Pipe Band Competition. (But I think they charge you to get in so we'll just hope the wind's in the right direction and we catch it from home!) Who says we Scots are mean and not patriotic? As to having days without mobile phones and facebook now THATS what Sundays are for! (and as many other days of the week as one can manage)

Dan Holloway said...

I'll be performing poetry with my wonderful friends in Stoke Newington :) I have never quite understood the notion that modern life gets in the way of real community. For those of us who happen for one reason or another to have interests and opinions that most people in most locations don't share - outliers, I guess you'd call us, the internet is what has finally, after years of ostracism, given us a sense of community - everyone I'll be spending the day with tomorrow is someone I would never have met without the internet.

That said, we will be just like all other communities - we are brougt together by a foundation myth that we share - in our case, one that has to do with the ecstatic mystics, Montmartre, and the Beat. There's no real difference - both groups find solace in a commonality with roots. There is nothing in such community, based upon foundation myths, ur-stories, traceable lines of emotional history or whatever one calls it, that need provoke the fear that is many of our first reaction. The only time nostalgia does become dangerous is when one group seeks to take its own foundation story and give it a precedence over those of others who just happen to share a geographical space. I think that's the only reason I find the bunting and street parties intimidating - I love that people are celebrating and happy, it's the idea that the things that bring me together with people should be the same, or that I am somehow less community-minded because I have a different community that I find slightly threatening.

I do hope everyone has a fabulous jubilee - and that anyone near Stoke Newington who fancies getting away from it all for an hour or two pops down to hear some great poetry and say hello

Jennie Walters said...

Have a wonderful time, Dan! (And Cally too.) It's great that the internet has brought you together with like-minded people that you've gone on to have a face-to-face relationship with too. And I love your phrase 'common ality with roots'...

julia jones said...

I was on my boat so no facebook or internet for me. I was also with my mother who grew up in a wealthy house and looks back on her childhood as idyllic. I listen to her and I agree out loud (I wasn't there after all) but secretly I think NO, I like being busy, I like doing things for myself,I can't bear the thought of the invisibly enforced lesuire that was the lot of many well-off women. AS the great Lady Rhonddha once said "better to wear out than to rust".