12 December 2019

Love Letters Straight from the English Heart

12 December 2019 - Written by Colin Pantall

In 1934 J.B. Priestley travelled from the south of England to the north. In a book he wrote of the journey, he lays bare the inequality and economic injustice of the nation. John Angerson’s English Journey is a homage to Priestley’s book of the same name.

© John Angerson, from the book English Journey

It’s election day in the UK and it looks like the Conservative Party are going to win. The question is why? They’ve been in power 9 years, they’ve had 3 prime-ministers, 3 governments and their rule has been one of unmitigated economic and human disaster for all but the privileged few.

Food banks are now present in every town, the homeless rough sleepers (who have a life expectancy of 47) with their sleeping bags and cardboard boxes are visible in the doorways of even wealthy tourist cities like my hometown of Bath, it now costs students £9,000 to study for a year on British university courses, house prices are out of reach of anyone who doesn’t have a trust fund, and even renting a flat in the south of England has become a distant dream for a generation of young people.

And that’s before we even mention Brexit, a shitstorm created by ex-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron that the government has failed to resolve in three and a half years of showboating ineptitude.

Or Boris Johnson, a man who literally hides in fridges to avoid all but the most obsequious journalists, who is unwilling to say how many children he has, whose casual racism and class based prejudice spares no target, whose incompetence knows no bounds, whose prime-ministerial career to date is marked by a determination to overthrow British democracy, whose legacy will be the destruction of the union and the selling off of the National Health Service.

© John Angerson, spread from the book English Journey

Am I ranting, I think I am. That’s pretty much the state of mind of Britain at the moment; pointless rage, shouting at the television and raging in the supermarket aisles. I rewatched the brilliant news satire, Network, last week. It’s the one where people get to shout out of their window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Yeah, that’s us, except it’s not all of us.

Most people are mad as hell and they are really happy to take it some more. They’re mad as hell about housing, wages, the NHS, about all the problems that the Conservative party deliberately created over the past 9 years, yet still they vote for Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party. It is a classic case of turkeys voting for Christmas.

Maybe the reason is because of Brexit and they tune in to Johnson’s brain-dead mantra of “Get Brexit Done”. Getting Brexit Done will end the uncertainty is the claim. It will end the uncertaintly (in about 10 years time – it won’t be quick), in the same way the Anschluss ended the uncertainty for Austria in 1938, or the entry of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh ended the uncertainty for Cambodia in 1975, or the death of Gaddafi ended the uncertainty for Libya in 2012. Not that bad of course, but you get the idea. I’m just gagging for Brexit to be over and done with so I can wait for the whirlwind of a failing economy, closed doors, lost opportunities and narrowed horizons to come and whizz me away from the cloak of uncertainty I’m suffocating under.

Anyway, where does all this British madness come from? Well, first of all, it’s more English than British. The writer Pankaj Mishra reckons it’s all to do with loss of empire and our essential inability to deal with class. Englishness for Mishra is a class performance where privilege excuses everything, including the performative excesses (for which read famine and massacres) of colonial Britain.

© John Angerson, spreads from the book English Journey

Englishness for Mishra, was an empty vessel defined by power and empire. And then empire ended, and people started arriving on British shores from the West Indies, from India, Uganda, Bangladesh.

A new England was created, one where a burgeoning multiculturalism came up against a racist England bathing in an overwrought nostalgia filled with Spitfires, stiff-upper lips, ‘two world-wars and one world cup’ exceptionalism and little else. Very little else.

And that is essentially why people are voting Conservative. The little England hegemony that Mishra writes about here has won. We’re wallowing in a dream of a dream that never existed. We are the spectacle, the simulacrum, the medium-become-message all wrapped up in British irony and a sense of humour that is second to none! Fawlty Towers. Just amazing, except for the racist bits.

This idea of Englishness is what John Angerson’s book is all about. It’s controlled and good-natured but it still has bite. The outsourcing of industry, the nostalgia market, the pursuit of impossible dreams the undertow of a deepseated denial are all there. It’s a book where Englishness is a shadow of a Platonic shadow, a structure on the verge of collapse, where even the foundations of fox-hunting and country homes seem worn-out and shabby.© John Angerson, from the book English Journey

The symbols of ‘banal nationalism’ (letter boxes, red phone boxes, guards) have been deliberately excluded by Angerson who looks instead at the people who struggle to make lives in transnationally owned hotels, leisure parks and service stations. It’s a book of KFC and Call Centres, a homage to a country that never was.

Yet at the same time it’s affectionate. The brilliant and beautiful design helps in this. English Journey looks fresh and it looks cheery. It’s got tipped in prints of quite ordinary scenes which match up with very factual captions on the opposite page. It’s sober in image and text, but then bursts into life with maps, with ephemera, with the cover.

But still, this is an England of disappointment. Disappointing jobs, disappointing housing, disappointing architecture. It’s the language of disappointment, but because it’s a very English book, it’s delivered in a chipper voice. Chin up, worse things could happen, but it was published before the biggest disappointment of all, the disappointing election result.

We are fucked essentially. And this is the book to show it. In an optimistic kind of way, because there’s a side of England that is outward looking and open, that welcomes diversity, multiculturalism, that celebrates and acknowledges the present and the past in a way that goes beyond spitfires and 1966. And why not, because it’s Thursday 12th December and by the morning of the 13th there is a small chance that the Conservative government are not the government, and Boris Johnson is not the prime-minister. And even if he is, remember that less than 25% of the British people voted for his party. Seventy-five per cent didn’t. That you might take as the conclusion of Angerson’s English Journey. It’s not a country of xenophobic dicks whatever the election result tells you. God help us, a man who hides in a fridge and can’t say how many children he has as prime-minister? Pray for us please.

© John Angerson, from the book English Journey


English Journey by John Angerson

Published by B&W Studio // 60 colour photographs // Printed Litho at Team Impression, Leeds, England.

Hardback 118 pages // 20.8 x 15.4 cm // £35

Each book comes complete with a route map of the English Journey



Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

7 minutes

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