Pumped by fame

Robert Sheehan is a not wholly convincing playboy.

Fans of Misfits (Channel 4) will already be familiar with the tousle-topped Robert Sheehan's charismatic blarney as Nathan, the superhero with an Asbo. In The Playboy of the Western World, currently on at London's Old Vic, he also riffs on the "outsider" theme.

In his professional stage debut he plays Christy Mahon, chancer and fabulist whose tall tales seduce the Western World, or Co. Mayo, Ireland. With perverse but ruthlessly consistent logic, the locals accord him celebrity status when he blabs that he has murdered his dad with a shovel. He's considered an ideal protector for the pub landlord's daughter Pegeen ("she'll be safe with a man whose killed his father"); he's lavished with gifts from the neighbourhood colleens ("feel the fat of that breast mister").

Precursor to the absurdist dramas of the 20th century, not to mention the surreal civic antics of Royston Vasey, J M Synge's Irish outpost is a community fuelled by poteen, where the mark of an excellent wake is "five men, six men stretched out retching." But it's also idiosyncratic, to say the least, when it comes to the law, and fearful when it comes to the Church - a warped morality is centred, or rather, off-centred, in the noticeably absent Father Riley.

In Synge's superbly constructed play, there are a number of reversals for the sweet-tongued Christy. As the story progresses the craic livens, and deepens. His father enters, very much alive. Then he dies again. Then he...well, you get the idea. At each turn Christy's fame, pegged to his "gallant story," ebbs and flows. Not only is the locals' opinion in flux, but also, crucially, his sense of self. He's pumped by fame, becomes a different person, and is "destroyed" (a favourite word in the Synge lexicon) when he stumbles from playboy to pariah.

John Crowley's production is pretty good on Irish atmospherics. The coastal shebeen, the site of the action, is exposed in all its lonely poverty. The designers come over all unnecessary, however, with the revolving stage, which performs a lumbering 360° between scenes to reveal only that the actor has changed his shirt. To be fair, though, baring the crib's backside somewhat stresses its isolation, here on the margin where the Western World runs out of land and into the sea.

The show starts, and restarts after the interval, to a bit of the old Pogues: folky, risqué Irish ballads which anticipate the musical deep structure of Synge's work. This very musicality, however, is a mixed blessing. Whole scenes pass, particularly towards the beginning of the play, when I was listening to the song but not the words. Caught up entirely in the contrapuntal inflections, we literally tune out. Which is a pity, because the tale of the playboy who "capsized the stars" is nothing if not lyrically beautiful.

Sheehan's role rather seems to cramp him; he appears to spend much of his time trying to make his coltish limbs look smaller. Making no great impression is oddly almost - almost - appropriate, since the piece is about the projected desires of onlookers, though I would have thought the onlookers needed a bit more to go on. He's tidily paired with fellow Misfit Ruth Negga as Pegeen, stony-faced in her stony pub. Kevin Trainor builds a subtle rhythm of timidity and sham as Pegeen's first suitor, Shawn. But it's arguably Niamh Cusack as the equivocal, pragmatic Widow Quin who propels the show, with her appraising looks and mannish manners. She canvasses for the playboy's affections, but with an eye for a bargain she's just as interested in Shawn's heifers and "the blue bull from Sneem".

As a woman, and a widow, she also has outsider status. In the world of the play "widow" is interchangeable with "hag." "Wait till you lay eyes on her leaky thatch," bristles the rivalrous Pegeen in her smear campaign.

Strong words; strong women. It's perhaps not too fanciful to give credit here to Synge's unsung collaborator and lover Molly Allgood, who has been all but deleted from the record. Fierce.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon