Sunday, 16 June 2013

Reading Group Report: ‘Words for Remembering’: Twentieth Century Propaganda and Nineteenth-Century England

24 April 2013

Led by Kate Katigbak (Durham)

The focus of this session was to question the ways in which cultural thinkers construct definitions of ‘Britishness’ in both the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  We opened the session by watching a short propaganda film made by Humphrey Jennings, entitled ‘Words for Battle’.  Members were interested by its title, as it suggested that the power of the written word was influential upon concepts of nationhood and identity, especially in relation to its World War Two context.  The piece aligned footage of the 1940s conflict with readings of poetry and political speeches.  Such a fusion proved thought-provoking, not only in its relation of battle to the written and spoken word, but also the way that speeches by figures such as Winston Churchill seemed to usurp the place previously occupied by poetry in national consciousness.

We discussed the choices of poetry in Jennings’ film, commenting that they were linked by a theme of conflict that transcended historical timeframes.  For example, William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ lyric, reflecting on the failures of the French Revolution, and Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, lamenting the fall of the British Empire, seemed strikingly appropriate for the 1940s context.  We thus commented on the perpetual relationship that seems to exist between poetry and politics.  It was also suggested that Jennings may have intended a more subversive message beneath the outwardly jingoistic tone of his film.  His inclusion of Blake we found especially interesting, particularly as the latter’s ‘Jerusalem’ lyric was written in the preface to his longer poem Milton (1810), which in its focus upon the epic downfall of Paradise and Man, seemed fitting to the vision of England projected by our other text.

For this session, we had read F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson’s Culture and Environment (1933), an educational text that sought to refashion the concept of British identity and provide an alternative school syllabus in order to promote it.  We discussed the context behind Leavis’ view of Britishness, including the groundbreaking and controversial new school of criticism that he established at Cambridge, and his contribution to establishing the study of English Literature there.  Although inflexible in many ways, we admired Leavis’ conviction that the methodology behind English studies could be extended to other disciplines, and were interested in his, at times, eccentric decision to establish an alternative canon.  In many respects, Culture and Environment reflects these prerogatives, with Leavis’ writing reflecting a distrust for technology and machinery, and a desire to return to a pastoral vision of England.  However, we agreed that it was important to consider to what extent the onslaught of war inspired these beliefs, and whether this mythological attitude towards an England that had never really existed could be seen as culturally productive.  

Members were attracted to Leavis’s elevation of folk culture to the realm of high art, and considered that this raised questions about whether culture itself could be defined as organic.  However, as Leavis’s version of ‘culture’ was, in its inauthenticity, man-made, we agreed that his writing raised significant questions in relation to the construction of national identity.  In this respect, we identified parallels between the Jennings film and the Leavis text concerning the ease with which the past can be reconstructed (or manipulated), and the power of literature to interpret political change.  The NENC organising committee would like to thank Kate for a lively and engaging session.

Leanne Stokoe (Newcastle)