Review: Days of the Bagnold Summer

Joff Winterhart's debut comic, Days of the Bagnold Summer, has become, along with Mary and Bryan Talbot's biography/memoir Dotter of her Father's Eyes, the first graphic novel to be nominated for a Costa Book Award. The news was undoubtedly a significant moment for the medium, and raised a number of questions about the role of comics in relation to prose -– some answered thoughtfully, some… not so much –- which will clearly be argued over for some time to come.

In my view, it's a retrograde step to compare comics to a different medium. Few would argue that The Wire needs to be nominated for an Oscar, or that Newsnight's Paul Mason is done a disservice every time he's not awarded a "best broadsheet columnist" prize. The best comics ought to be praised as just that.

Bagnold Summer has been thrust into a position few would want, fighting not only for itself, but also as a poster-child for an entire medium. The book covers six weeks of the summer holidays of schoolboy Daniel Bagnold, 15, and his librarian mother Sue, 52. It is as neat a slice-of-life as you will find; Winterhart captures teenage angst perfectly, as Daniel mopes around the house, daydreaming about being in a metal band ("Skullslayer"), and occasionally leaving to sit with his one friend in the park, dressed head-to-toe in black in the hot summer sun.

The book is structured as though it's a collection of never-before-published newspaper strips. Each page stands alone as a vignette in the Bagnold's lives, and many small events are never picked up on again. Daniel, unable to sleep, drinks a two-litre bottle of coke at 2am; Sue mistakes a page of copied-out Metallica lyrics for a heartfelt poem by her son; the pair of them discuss their memories of Sue's American father, who left the country when she was young. But these moments build up to an impressively full portrait of the two leads.

In this way, it's not short, so much as economical. Shorn of much of the connective tissue that bulks up more conventionally structured books, every panel is crucial, included because of what it adds to the book, rather than simply placing the characters where they need to be for an "event".

With many slice-of-life tales, this lack of events can get wearying, as characters go about their daily routines impeccibly observed but in a manner which doesn't say an awful lot. Bagnold Summer avoids some of that with its compactness, but also with growth. It's not much, but Sue and Daniel end the book in a different place to where they began, and it's watching that change, as much as their normal lives, which is rewarding.

The economy of the book extends to its art. The comic-strip-style layout leads to a deliberately formulaic page -– six panels, with a one-word title -– while the panels often contain nothing but scratchy headshots of the characters. Backgrounds are rare, filled in only when they are necessary for the point of the scene. The style lends an air of theatre to the whole book, as though there are stage-hands running on with the props for the next scene between each page.

It is an art style which is functional, not beautiful. That is not to impugn Winterhart's ability as a cartoonist –- his characters are far more expressive than those found in many "mainstream" comics. In fact, he appears not to know how good he is, with the odd caption being slightly overwritten. One of the best tests of a cartoonist's ability is whether the page makes sense without words, and if it does, that might be a hint that there ought to be fewer there in the first place.

Maybe this style is what appealed Bagnold Summer to the Costa jury. It's not a book which a certain type of comics reader -– one "in it for the art" -– would enjoy, but with a story told mostly through dialogue and narration, a strict visual language, and coming as it does from an "acceptable" genre, it's as good a book as any to lead the way. It's just a shame that the more radical elements of the book will likely be lost on that panel.

Oh –and feel free to call it a "graphic novel" if you want. Not all comics are graphic novels, but this one certainly is.

Comics: an art form in their own right (Getty Images)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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