by Katherine Govier
In Britain the threat of Americanization is only part of a much-remarked-upon decline... There are debates in the Spectator and the London Review of Books about "Britishness." It is, well, Ironic
In England recently, I worked at home in Primrose Hill and made occasional forays to the local library in Camden, where the. Labour Council, strapped for cash, has sold all the books to a French bank. Fortunately, the books are leased back, and it was there, in a mortgaged copy of Primrose Hill to Euston Road, A Survey of the Streets of West Camden, that I read about famous former residents of that part of London.
Friedrich Engels walked from Regent's Park Road every day to meet his friend Karl Marx on Maitland Park Road; Ethel Florence, the Australian, under the pen name of Henry Handel Richardson, wrote The Getting of Wisdom here; William Butler Yeats lived as a boy on Fitzroy Road; Sylvia Plath wag thrilled to find a flat in Yeats's old house, only to kill herself there the first winter.
That house has been "done up," but the locals say it hasn't stopped tourists pounding on the door, asking to see the oven. Locals get bitter about tourists, but fail to note that their famous neighbours were tourists, too: visitors, exiles, whose stay here was temporary.
Primrose Hill is a charming London village centred around the hill itself, named in Elizabethan times for the primroses that grew there, and lined with trees proceeding to a bare height. The crest of the hill was shaved during the Second World War to allow good vision for anti-aircraft grins, and all replanting has been thwarted by vandals. Pale people in tweed jackets and jodhpurs, with loose limp hair and large rubber boots, walk their dogs on it. The streets below mix expensive terraces with council flats and an old-age estate. From the top, the high points on the London skyline are visible -- St. Pancras Station, St. Paul's, Crystal Palace, Westminster Cathedral. Within several miles have walked half the major figures of English letters: Pepys. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and most of their characters.
It is a view that makes it easy to believe that London is still the very heart of the English-speaking world. But that, of course, is an illusion. Britain is no longer supreme, though the notion that it is persists nowhere so much as in some literary minds. In fact, the decline of that
supremacy - the aftermath of empire, if you like - has become the true subject of that country's literary self-examination. In the high-street bookshop three prominent novels take positions in the debate: Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way, Nadine Gordimer's A Sport of Nature, V.S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival.
Drabble's "Liz Headleand" lives just across the park, on Harley Street, although she came from the north. "Her own childhood," writes Drabble, "had been lived on the margins; she had wanted [her children's] to be calm, to be spared the indignities of fighting unnecessary territorial and social wars." So to a renovated 18th-century house in W1 they came. "Vanished suburbia, vanished the provinces, vanished forever solitude and insignificance and social fear."
Another kind of arrival is V.S. Naipaul's writer-hero's. He came to England from Trinidad as a young man, and though now in late middle age, he still feels himself to be "in the other man's country," despite the fact that "with a knowledge of the language and the history of the language and the writing," he could "find a special past in what he saw."
The writer describes how he first saw rural England as a land without meaning, because he lacked the vocabulary to name it. There were low, smooth hills in the background; only after many years did he learn to call these "downs."
This kind of study of the application of language to landscape is very fashionable now among academics and literary
critics and in the media. During my year in England people talked a great deal about a television series charting the history of English. This series asserted that, although the empire has sunk into darkness, its language prevails in much of the world. It went on to examine how that language has been changed by its foreign speakers, twisted and added to and otherwise altered to fit the new place.
It came to me while watching these programs - and I suppose it should have been obvious - that the English think they own the language. (Well, why wouldn't they? They invented it.) This is the last colonization, the idea of the superiority of Standard English over American, Canadian, or Australian English. And it casts its shadow on all the arrivals to London, whether from Yorkshire or Alberta or Port of Spain. It is the experience of hearing one's own words turn strange. It creates a sense of not fitting, a alight slip in one's own application to the landscape, a gaps and an exposure. In a theatre one asks for a cup of coffee and the reply is "How long have you been over?" Not a visible minority but an audible one.
Questions about the words of minorities came up at the meeting I attended in Cambridge, where faculty and postgraduates were briefing themselves in preparation for the founding of a chair in something to be called "International English Literature." As a Canadian I was exhibit A; Ben Okri from Nigeria and Anita Desai from India were exhibits H and C. We read our work, talked about our cultural traditions and answered questions. The point of the inquiry seemed to be this: she is writing in English, but she is not wilting as English, therefore what is it she is writing? How do we talk about it? By what rules do we judge it?
To the academic, English literature has base the literature of England. But England is a very specific place, less even than a nation, arty s part of the United Kingdom; and the canon of "English" literature has been written by a certain privileged group, chiefly in the Oxbridge idiom. The more energetic academics are recgnizing that today this idiom encompasses only a small corner of the literature in "their" language. And the Language, like the empire, is being decolonized. The memorable characters who once were depicted striding the streets of London are now to be found in the outback, the veld, and the Canadian prairie, and colonial literary types come in ever greater numbers to pay their respects to London.
Discovering the language on another ground - the words on the original page gives it a special transparency. Even a child of rive begins to see through language, as if it were glass. "What do we call it in Toronto?" he demands, pointing to an object on the street.
"A garbage can."
"What do we call it in England?"
Then, displaying a rare impatience he is used to this, it has beet going on all year and he easily keeps track of both names; that is not the problem, the problem is that some mediation is needed he asks the final question: "Well, what is it?"
The what-is-it people at Cambridge drew their sessions to a close this spring without coming to any major conclusions. Except, perhaps, that International English Literature will not include American. That outdated club, the Commonwealth, is lurking under the surface. The more radical academics hope that if the Americans feel left out, they will move to establish their own chair, their own separate study - and that the Scots and the Irish and whoever else will also demand separate consideration. They want the whole study of "English" literature to disengage; they are convinced that books must be studied in the national context.
If the academics have their way, and such studies proliferate, it will be a move in direct opposition to what is happening an the publishing scene. Talk continues of the Americanization of Britain's major houses: First Jonathan Cape, Chatto. Virago, and the Bodley Head were sold to Random House; and then Penguin's chief, Peter Mayer, left London for New York to run the giant from the American side. The fear is that Penguin and other corporations will be dominated by Americans, and with reason: according too the Sunday Times, Americans purchase four times as many books as the entire Commonwealth - Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Britain - put together.
God knows, a Canadian can sympathize. We are on the cutting edge of this problem, genuinely ahead of the pack. But in Britain the threat of Americanization is only part of a much-remarked-upon decline, old news really, lust another part of the "uncaring," ruined, morally corrupt, culturally bankrupt. Thatcherite, post-Big-Rang, yuppified, racist, sexist Britain. It is all described in the new "centre-of-London" books, the Fay Weldon, Kingsley Amis, Margaret
Drabble books all written within a stone's throw of Primrose Hill. There are debates in the Spectator and the London Review of Books about the meaning of "Britishness." It is, well, ironic. Irony is the after math of empire, irony the slip between actual and projected image, the sense of not fitting.
But irony has not changed daily life in Primrose Hill. London, the original literary local, continues in its inspired, persistent, bloody-minded specificity. Nits in children's hair at the state school, the proliferation of dog stool on the Hill - the rising middle class wants it cleaned up for their kids, the upper class thinks that would be unfair to the dogs everything is cause for complaint, gossip, and accusations of class bias. Every inch of this place has been tramped over, bled into, for centuries. The tavern names go back to Middle English and the bus routes might as well, so much resistance is there to their changing. Whatever the rest of the world is doing, people here continue to look in, not out.