|Portobello Books Ltd|
the observer Sat 30 May 2009
This energetically delivered thesis on how England is gradually changing in the face of corporate homogeneity comes as close as any recent book has to defining modern-day "Englishness". Kingsnorth, an environmentalist, travels around the country, visiting towns undergoing change and meeting inhabitants clinging to traditional values. He makes a compelling case for upholding the virtues of family-run shops, community pubs and so on in the apparently inevitable face of market-driven change. Although he skirts more controversial issues - hunting is only mentioned in passing - this remains a readable call to arms, in the tradition of other national polemicists such as Cobbett, Priestley and Orwell. AL
the guardian Fri 29 May 2009
I occasionally say of a book that it is important, and that everyone should read it; this time I say so more emphatically than ever. I would like Gordon Brown to be strapped into a chair and have it read to him. And not let out of it again until he has given Paul Kingsnorth a powerful position in government.
Let's start with some statistics: "The UK has lost nearly 30,000 independent food, beverage and tobacco retailers over the past decade ... 13,000 independent newsagents closed ... between 1995 and 2004. Fifty specialist shops closed every week between 1997 and 2002 ... The number of second-hand bookshops halved from 1,200 to 600 in the three years between 2002 and 2005. Meanwhile, the number of out-of-town shopping areas increased four-fold between 1986 and 1997 ... Since the end of the second world war we have lost - no, not lost, destroyed - 95% of our wildflower meadows, 50% of our chalk grasslands, half of our ancient lowland woodlands, half of our wetlands, 94% of our lowland raised bog and 186,000 miles of ancient hedgerow."
If you're happy with that, then you can only be a property developer, a banker, or a politician. But for the rest of us, who might be anxious about the growing homogenisation of our country, this is deeply distressing. I noticed, when I went to Westfield in west London, to write a blog about it for the Guardian, that the vast shopping centre called its central area "the Village"; which seemed exactly wrong: a village is somewhere where people live, and a shopping centre is where, by definition, no one does. Or, to put it another way, the shopping centre is a lifeless space.
This is a very depressing book at times. His chapter on the desecration of pubs I found particularly harrowing. The fact that the French term for the corporate takeover of city high streets is "la Londonisation" should, as Kingsnorth puts it, pull us up short. It does, to put it mildly. And the fact that the Paradise Project in Liverpool, in which 42 acres of previously public space, encompassing 34 streets and a public park, will be handed over to private business, with the result that the very streets (one of which gives its name to the enterprise) will be policed by private security guards, and offer no guaranteed right of way to the public, might actually make you feel sick.
The result of this is the marginalisation, followed by the extinction, of all the little bits of organically grown culture that make England in any way distinctive. "Flats that look like offices and offices that look like flats," says one protester in the course of this book, which I think sums it up quite neatly, although perhaps does not emphasise enough the distress that so-called "progress" causes on a personal level, as livelihoods and the traditions of generations are destroyed. A company called Rosewheel has plans to knock down Chinatown and move everyone into a "Chinese-themed shopping mall known as the 'Chinatown Gateway'". You want them to come to fruition?
This is an issue that cuts across traditional political divides, as Boris Johnson's reprieve of Newham's Queen's Market should indicate. That Zac Goldsmith also says everyone in England should read this book is welcome. Kingsnorth follows in the tradition of Cobbett (who first identified the crushing of the spirit of place by the impersonal and often corrupt rapaciousness of the profit motive as "the Thing") and Orwell, united by a love of ordinary humanity.
There is hope. There are signs of resistance to the Tescoisation of the land, and the back of the book provides a list of organisations you can join. I take mild issue at his insistence that the essence of Englishness is in danger of being lost, because part of being English is diffidence towards Englishness; but there are enough times where he says "by the time you read this, X will have been razed/built over/lost for ever" for us to be convinced of the urgency of this book, and the need for us to stop being complacent. Go now, buy this and do something before it's too late.