The main thesis behind this book is that there is no such thing as a "Real England". Not anymore. Not if you don't seek and fight for it. Whereas community pubs, local shops, farms and orchards used to stay for centuries an avalanche of Tesco supermarkets, chain stores and suburban "redevelopment" settlements have drawn a new English-non English landscape.
This is a new England where you can travel from north Brighton to south Carlisle without noticing any difference around you. Some people may find this evenness somehow reassuring making their grocery at Asda, buying clothes in Primark, selecting a new tea table from an Argos catalog, sipping a latte from a Starbucks branded cuppa and then heading to the nearest multiplex cinema, but not Mr Kingsnorth. And I am with him.
Although, "Real England" could be sometimes too idealist and no-logo oriented for my liking, I have to admit how what still strikes me in this country is how many things have this tendency of looking everywhere the same. What made either a little town or an average size city different from the others, that local character these places used to have is fading away while a few people seem to care.
Let's talk about my own personal experience in England. I moved to Abingdon (30,000 inhabitants) from Oxford just 9 months ago. In the meantime, 4 pubs have closed down just like 3 shops did in the downtown area, while two mini-Tescos and a Coop supermarket have opened. Abingdon High Street is lined with estate agencies, branch banks and the occasional charity shop. The local council thought about move and diminish the local library. There is no functioning movie-theatre in Abingdon and very little to do after 5 PM, apart from shopping in a 24 hours open Tesco at the edge of town. The favourite meeting point of the local kids is a kebab van parked in the Market Square.
Overall, I have got the feeling that Paul Kingsnorth is right: everything which made England English has been swallowed by international standardization and poor redevelopment. What I don't really like in this book is just the way it talks about "They".
"They" are the enemies of local communities, co-operatives and villagers who try to defend their surrounding from the brand invasion. "They" could be banks, local authorities, corporations or quangos (the funny neologism they use to name State-owned agencies in the UK), but are always evil.
Which is a point of view. As a matter of fact, Kingsnorth here creates a counterposition between these "They" and a sort of "Us" suggesting that every Englishman and woman should be aware of what is happening to their country.
This clash is nothing new. It's decades that English anthropoligists, historians, sociologists, economists and novelists are warning against the end of England as an identifiable entity. Some people blamed the growing influence of immigrants on the English society while others (and Kingsnorth gets the credit of being among them) reckon how foreigners actually brought even more diversity and cultural richness into England being victims and not executioners of the social impoverishment of a whole country.
Back in 1938 and back from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell decided to dedicate to his own homeland the final lines of "Homage to Catalonia":
"Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges of the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowlers hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen - all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs".
Nowadays, this extremely long - but all the same wonderful - paragraph could be easily read as a prophecy of what would have happened next: World War II, Coventry and the Blitz, the hard years after the end of the conflict with the final gasp of a tottering British Empire.
But what Orwell was also trying to say in this elegy of a bygone land is that his own country was on the verge of losing its peculiarities, its character, what made England a different place than the rest of Europe.
That deep, deep sleep which the abrupt awakening of German bombs and V2s would have eventually stopped was at the same time a critic and a praise of England in Orwell's words. On the one hand, it certainly meant distrust and closeness towards the rest of the world, but on the other hand it also implied a diversity brought by centuries of a parallel social, cultural and political development. England was going to lose all of this and Orwell knew very well how, for better or worse, most of the unmistakable Englishness he liked and despised would have disappeared soon.
It's no coincidence that Paul Kingsnorth quotes Orwell pretty often here.
"Real England" worths to be read if only for learning a few things about England that don't appear very often in the newsreels and becoming familiar with a bunch of characters who dedicated their lives to the survival of what the Kinks named "The Village Green Preservation Society". It was 1968 and a pop band had already spotted very well what was going on in England.