Forest of Dean & Wye Valley


In A.Graham, B. Graham, Reviews on June 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm

In our occasional series of “double reviews”, the Clarion presents two viewpoints on “The Progressive Patriot – a search for belonging”, by Billy Bragg , published in 2007.


The starting point for Billy Bragg’s book is May 2006, when the BNP won 12 seats on the Barking & Dagenham Council. Barking was Billy’s home town, and the experience of white racists flaunting their “patriotism” in the community where he was born and raised caused him to pause and take stock of his own sense of identity.

In many ways the book is a rambling, semi-autobiographical account of his life as he peruses the influences that helped to shape him. He opens with a history of Barking and the growth of this Essex riverside community from pre-Roman times, quoting the words of Kipling: “And Norsemen and Negro and Gaul and Greek drank with the Britons in Barking Creek”.

It was of course industry as well as shipping that shaped latter-day Barking. The industry is now largely gone, and even the once mighty Ford works in neighbouring Dagenham are now a mere shadow of what they once were. It’s this loss of identity with work and neighbourhood that helped to provoke the rise of the BNP in the area.

Billy Bragg’s affinity with his birthplace is reinforced by his sense of family history. Generations of Braggs lived and worked there. These early influences were overlaid in his teenage years by the pop culture and music of the 1970s which he embraced with enthusiasm, starting with the chart success of Bridge over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel. Many of his early ’70s musical influences seemed to stem from American artists who had “drunk deeply from the well of English tradition”. Interspersed with his account of his musical genesis is an examination of how British history was taught in schools through the works of Macauley and Trevelyan, praising the triumph of the established order in building the mighty British Empire. This view, he says, was finally challenged with the publication of E.P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class” in 1963; which “gave voice to those who had been considered the losers – Luddites, Chartists, Radicals.” I’d go back a bit further. This perspective was also the basis of a film produced by the Co-op in the mid-1940s, “The Song of the People”, starring the late Bill Owen.

Billy Bragg returns to the part played by music as we faced the growth of organised racism with the rise of the National Front and the BNP, including the birth of “Rock Against Racism” as a response. He flirted with punk rock (a fad which I fear left me cold – but then I’d been part of the earlier skiffle generation), before helping to found the “Red Wedge” collective of musicians in 1987.

He returns to what he calls “the Old Country” – those influences and memories from the old days passed on by parents to their children that become a patina of second-hand nostalgia. In Billy Bragg’s case it was the Second World War with tales of the Blitz, followed by the discovery of the wartime documentary films of Humphrey Jennings. At the same time as Jennings was filming, the Beveridge Report had become an unlikely best seller. Its proposals were to become the foundation stone of what became known as our “welfare state”.

Out of this multi-focussed account, Billy Bragg has produced a work, much of which I can identify with – and indeed learn from. There are, of course, different points of reference. My own roots were somewhat different, and my political influences belong to an earlier generation – that of the Cold War years of the 1950s and the rise of the nuclear disarmament movement. My sense of “patriotism”, or identity, is probably more diffuse than that of Billy.


* * * * * * * *


Despite his Internationalist principles, Billy Bragg has always cut a distinctly English figure. He’s made a point of singing in his own broad regional accent, refusing to take on the transatlantic vocal style of most pop and rock, or to adopt any of its habitual Americanisms. His songs have always been about England, from our politics and social history (“Between the Wars”, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”) to rites of passage rooted in time and place (“The Milkman of Human Kindness”, “St. Swithin’s Day”, “From a Vauxhall Velox”). Not forgetting, of course, his first semi-hit, “A New England”, and his 2002 album, England, Half English. All of which makes Bragg seemingly well-equipped to reflect on notions of patriotism and national identity, and how they can mean different things to different people.

Very much a patriot in his own way, and one with a very strong sense of history and how it shapes communities and nations, Bragg nevertheless demonstrates that the golden-age myth of some bucolic, vanished England – as represented by the writings of the ludicrously reactionary Peter Hitchins – is just that, a misty and insubstantial myth, woven seductively together from a welter of disparate and unreliable sources. His own patriotism is far less sentimental, recognising that tradition is in the eye of the beholder, and that history and national character aren’t static things but are constantly evolving and moving forward.

Bragg is similarly clear-eyed and even-handed in dealing with his own mythology. The irreverence, energy and iconoclasm of punk changed his life, and he sees it as being in a long English tradition of radical grass roots uprisings. But he also admits that even from the start it contained disturbing elements of nihilistic violence and Nazi chic. The battle for punk’s heart between the National Front and Rock Against Racism – backed by the Socialist Workers’ Party – is engagingly described and forms the backdrop to Bragg’s own political awakening.

In the end, Billy decides that punk bands like The Clash ultimately failed because they never fully engaged with politics, leading him to throw his weight behind “Red Wedge” and the Labour movement from the late eighties onwards. Arguably this was to the detriment of his own career, as he was unfairly pigeon-holed as a one-dimensional political singer-songwriter, when among other things he’s also written some of the finest love songs of the past thirty years (I suggest “The Saturday Boy” and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” for starters).

Bragg ends by calling for a national debate on what it is to be British (despite the emphasis being on “Englishness” rather than “Britishness” throughout most of the book), and for a national declaration of rights applicable to everyone, regardless of class or country of origin.

Bragg’s final notion of “establishing space rather than race as our foundation” and of Britishness being simply “the sum of everything that is in Britain today” are consistent with the book’s overall achievement of rendering complex , contradictory ideas in clear, commonsense terms. Bragg may place himself in the tradition of radical dissent, but he remains nevertheless a quietly reassuring figure. To quote his best known song, he doesn’t want to change the world; he’s just looking for a New England. This is as good a guide as any.


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