David Bowie performing in 2003. Photo: Getty.
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Let’s not pretend: David Bowie’s Brit Award was for being alive

Musicians and pundits need to get over their obsessive, nostalgic hero-worship. In 2014, David Bowie is irrelevant.

In ten years time, if we should happen to look over the Brits winners of 2014, among the list of forgotten flash in the pans and now-stadium-dependables David Bowie’s award for Best Male Artist will be the Proust’s madeleine or forgotten TV theme that sends us hurtling back to 2014. And, with a lurch of embarrassment for the time and all of us here, the question will form on our lips: “What were we thinking?”

Let’s not pretend: Bowie’s award was for being alive, as was the acclaim that greeted his single, “Where Are We Now”. We thought he was dead/in a coma/suffering from dementia/Parkinson’s Disease and he wasn’t. If that didn’t do it, the song (calculatedly or not, who knows?) was even about nostalgia – walking through Berlin, looking back – and came with a wistful chorus guaranteed to send Pavlovian shivers down the spine of anyone who’d seen him perform “Starman” on Top Of The Pops, or listened to “Station to Station” in a dark bedroom, or remembered him leaning against a wall in the video for “Let’s Dance”. Solo acts can’t break up and reform; Bowie had (calculatedly or not) figured out his own way to rekindle that love.

I’m as happy as anyone that he’s alive and well enough to make a record and disappoint me by appearing in an advert for Louis Vuitton. But let’s not get this out of proportion. Let’s not pretend he’s made a great album: I don’t even want to listen to the whole of that song again, let alone the album it comes from. It was the same when Bob Dylan released his Tempest in 2012. Asked what the best albums of the year were, I put that in. How could I not? It was Bob Dylan, the man who changed rock music and, more importantly, nursed me through my student days and three separate heartbreaks, played the best gig I’ve ever seen, whose greatest moments still work their magic for me. And I haven’t listened to Tempest since.

Bowie, like Dylan, is irrelevant. Any of the other nominees for Best Male Artist – folk throwback Jake Bugg, angsty electronicist James Blake, retro-soulboy John Newman or plangent piano manchild Tom Odell – represent a strand of popular music in the UK now, for good or ill. Marvellously, none of them were born when Bowie last won the same award, in 1984 – for Let’s Dance, the album where he was last relevant, though first stopped dictating what relevance was. Another twinkle in his father’s eye was Harry Styles of One Direction, whose reaction to Bowie’s win, for Radio 4’s Today programme, was, “He’s a legend.” The boy put his finger on it – a legend is exactly what Bowie is, and his award came from the ancestor-worship pop music has been indulging in for some time as it tries to come to terms with its own old age.

Radio 6, a station created in order to connect pop past and present, has been one of the most committed participants in the past year’s Bowie worship. Perhaps they can draw a line under it now. Moving on doesn’t have to take away from what he did before – we can still love that. We can enjoy his new stuff, too, but let’s not get them confused. It’s a shame Bowie’s comeback didn’t take the form of dense art music like Scott Walker’s, or painting. Instead, it seems he still wants to be in the game. But to humour him, for the sake of our various pasts, is ludicrous.

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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