My Inspiration: Alex Niven | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Alex Niven is a writer and editor from Northumberland. Currently a lecturer in English at Newcastle University, his books include Folk Opposition and Definitely Maybe 33 1/3. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The New Statesman, Tribune, The Independent, Pitchfork and LA Review of Books. His latest book, New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England is essential reading for those who want to critically understand “Englishness” and the twilight of England.

Alex shares the inspiration behind his latest work ahead of his event at Blackwell Book Shop, Newcastle on Wednesday 13th November, where he will be discussing the book. 

The starting point for New Model Island was a feeling of annoyance about the rise of ‘Englishness’. Since the millennium, popular and middlebrow culture has been obsessed with ‘English identity’, from coffee table books like Ben Fogle’s English: A Story of Marmite, Queuing and the Weather and Harry Mount’s How England Made the English: From Why We Drive on the Left to Why We Don’t Talk to Our Neighbours, to art exhibitions like Jeremy Deller’s English Magic and pop albums like P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake and the Good the Bad and the Queen’s Merrie Land.

I think there are interesting ways of looking at England and its history, but England hasn’t really existed as a proper country (separate from the United Kingdom) for hundreds of years. It has a massive, incredibly diverse population, and there are huge differences between the regions — does, say, a banker from Surrey and a social worker from Sunderland really share the same national identity? I don’t think so, and the whole notion of Englishness seems to me to be very hollow. Often, it’s just a way of propping up a very traditional, mainly Tory establishment based in the South East.

So I wanted to demolish the myth of England once and for all. I took a lot of inspiration from Marxist theorists like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, who wrote widely about the ‘Problem of England’ back in the sixties and seventies, and Benedict Anderson, whose book Imagined Communities is a classic account of how nationalisms are artificial constructs.

I also built on the ideas of my friend Joe Kennedy (a Darlo native), whose recent book Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness showed up the absurdity of politicians and artists who project a fake authenticity — patriotism, folksiness, ‘legitimate concerns’ about immigration and so on — to shore up their populist credentials.

But I also want to try to go beyond England and Englishness, and ask: if we could start all over again and redesign the ‘British Isles’, what would they look like? 

One idea that has great potential is regionalism. I think regional devolution is much needed, although I also talk in the book about how ‘Northumbrian identity’, for example, has good and bad sides. 

On the one hand, a stronger North-East culture inspired by our modernist and socialist heritage would help to balance out the obscene amounts of wealth and power gathered in ultra-capitalist London and the South-East. But on the other, we don’t want a ‘Northumbrian nationalism’ that just replicates the worst aspects of Englishness. 

There’s a bit in the book where I come across a sticker on a gatepost on the Town Moor in Newcastle which reads NORTHUMBRIANS: LOVE YOUR BLOOD & SOIL. After investigation, it transpired that it was probably the work of a very small far-right group. Obviously this sort of thing raises alarm bells.

The final chapter of New Model Island takes inspiration from modernist and sci-fi literature to speculate about how we can re-imagine these islands beyond the simple but important move towards regional empowerment. In this part of the book, I was drawing on the notion of a ‘dream archipelago’, which the sci-fi writer Christopher Priest used in his novels of the 1970s. 

I also wanted to channel some of the idealism of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which tries to uncover the utopian potential hidden in a city (Dublin) oppressed by English colonisers. Ulysses is based on the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey, which suggests that we can only find our way home by continually venturing to new islands and undergoing new experiences.

This ‘archipelagoan’ feeling should, I think, form the basis of a new model for the islands heading into the future. If we say goodbye to a unitary Englishness centring on London, we could embrace the colourful varieties of the islands. How about a new network of cities in the north and west stretching into Scotland and Wales connected by high-speed rail? How about building a brand-new ‘second capital’ on the Anglo-Scottish border to distribute institutional power away from London?

These are only very tentative suggestions, but I think the important thing is to open up the imaginative space for new models of cultural and political organisation, models with the potential to even-out the huge geographical inequalities of these islands. As we try to do this, we should have the daring to leave the dreams of England and Englishness where they belong, in the fairy-tale past.

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