‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’: Harry Mount’s How England Made the English

18 May

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I am debuting here a new and potentially revolutionary practice: lecture midlandaise, or ‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’.

I got the notion from écriture feminine (‘women’s writing’), an idea that French feminist critics came up with back in the 1970s, when they argued that female consciousness had largely been expunged from the world of books. As Hélène Cixous said in her manifesto for this new kind of literature: ‘Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. Écriture féminine places experience before language, and privileges the anti-linear, cyclical writing so often frowned upon by patriarchal society.’

Following on from this, I now propose écriture midlandaise, the programme for which can be summed up as follows: ‘Midlanders must write themselves: must write about Midlanders and bring Midlanders to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their sense of their own centrality to the history of England and the wider world. Écriture midlandaise places the Midlands before North and South, and privileges the wonders of the Midlands so often frowned upon by the English establishments of North and South.’ It sounds pretentious, but it’s a hoot really.

Anyway, an important component of this new practice is what Frenchies like Hélène Cixous would call lecture midlandaise, or ‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’.

That doesn’t mean I’m only going to read books about the Midlands from now on – that wouldn’t take very long; books about the North, by contrast, are legion and take a lot of reading (I have to keep waking myself up). But from now on whatever books I do read I’m going to read bodily and intellectually as a Midlander – that is, with an acute awareness of the ways in which the Midlands and Midlanders are portrayed or ignored in their pages.

Books about England and the English are obviously a good place to hone one’s skills Reading-as-a-Midlander, so I’ve picked Harry Mount’s How England Made the English as my starting point. This is a clever and enjoyable book, which is obviously the product of serious and wide-ranging research: Mount’s sentences often seem to contain more facts than they do words, which is no mean feat. But, more than the density of the data, what I like is the obliquity of the approach, as it allows the author to tilt and reframe (or just plain debunk) some of the most often repeated clichés about English life.

I do think the writer has missed a trick in chapter 10, however. This bears the title ‘North and South: The Great Divide’ and dates the beginnings of the tiresome North/South binarism at the heart of English culture to the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror in 1069–70. Actually, Northern consciousness can be traced much earlier, to the writings of the churchy Northern supremacist the Venerable Bede, aka ‘the father of English history’. But what’s really provoking is the way that Mount can discuss ‘the north–south divide’ while consistently foregrounding the existence of that crucial third party – the Midlands. So we find the following formulation: ‘Whether for good or ill effect, the greater scale of the industries of the Midlands and the north altered the lie of the land that much more deeply than southern industries.’ He then gives three examples, all of them drawn from the Midlands (Shropshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire). As such, we have a chapter that bluffly and credulously investigates the phenomenon of the supposed ‘north–south divide’ while often privileging the Midlands in the illustrations it gives of this division. This is a contradiction in terms, surely? Since Mount clearly knows that the Midlands are distinct from the North, how can he continue to talk about the ‘north–south divide’? It makes no sense.

(On the other hand, Mount gets a bonus mark for putting the Midlands ahead of the north – it’s always ‘the Midlands and the north of England’ – and a further mark for giving the Midlands a capital ‘M’ and the north a lowercase ‘n’.)

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