Exercise 4.2 – The British Landscape during World War II

The student is asked to read the short extract from ‘Landscape for everyone’ taken from ‘Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourists Imagination’ by John Taylor. The student is asked to Summarise the key points of the extract along with any other observations or reflections from the text. 

The current idea of the English Landscape really starts with C.F.G Masterman, when in the introduction to E.O. Hoppes Book ‘England’ Masterman absorbed the other nations of the United Kingdom into the single concept of one country of ‘England’. Mastermans perspective of a single historical landscape and country which could be viewed as single frames; frozen moments of time, where the countryside moved from wilderness through agricultural, cultural, religious and industrial influences to its current contemporary state. 

As the country entered into 1940, the phoney war had failed, British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and the fear of losing the war started to loom over the country. There was a genuine fear that suburban England would be invaded and occupied.  

[The Phoney War was an eight-month period at the start of World War II, during which there was only one limited military land operation on the Western Front when French troops invaded Germany’s Saar district. The Phoney period began with the declaration of war by the United Kingdom and France against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939 and ended with the German attack on France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. While there was no large-scale military action by Britain and France, they did begin economic warfare and shut down German surface raiders. They created elaborate plans for numerous large-scale operations designed to swiftly and decisively cripple the German war effort. ]

Mastermans concept of an England which had been “unconquered for a thousand years” became a central column in propaganda; The imaginary ideal of the typical ‘English’ village where the close-knit community built around the village green, the village church and the squire tied itself to the landscape and therefore into the unbeatable English spirit, which would fight back and destroy any invaders. This was built upon by C. Henry Warren in ‘England is a village’ where he wrote that ‘England’s might is still in her fields… and in the end, they will triumph’. The propaganda ideal that Nazi Germany could be defeated as long as English people worked the fields and kept the dream of England alive in their hearts, hands and eyes. an idea that Orwell touched upon in his Essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, Orwell wrote the essay as he prepared to shelter from a bombing raid. He expressed his opinion that Britain needed a socialist revolution and that the working class and the middle class could come together to form a classless society and through working together defeat the wealthy upper classes of Germany who funded the war.  

In reality, as part of the propaganda drive and to render any invasion impossible, the countryside was vandalised by camouflage, blackout and the removal of signs, place names, and road signs. This made journeys difficult if not impossible to any strangers to the area. The countryside became the refuge for city dwellers, evacuated children and the military, making it both welcome and bleak at the same time. 

This instability in the idea of the countryside was mainly resolved by offering wartime readers and viewers a link to the past, a sense of victory through a feeling of continuity; distilled from Masterman and Hoppes original ideal, the love of English scenery and beautiful England which became the foundation for the principles of victory.  Rather than show pictures of evacuated working-class children looking lost and forlorn in their new location, it was turned around so that it became a chance for the children to discover the beauty of the landscape for the first time. The upheaval and societal change were accommodated through the showing of images that reminded the viewer what they were protecting by fighting the war.  

Taylor points out that through the management of images and stories in the magazine ‘Picture Post’ the Ministry of Information worked hand in hand with the publishers to promote the ideology that the landscape of England was for everyone and worth defending. The landscape which in real terms was closed off to people was presented in layouts comparing the differences between the English way of life and that of life in fascist Germany. These articles were laid out as simply as possible to show everything that the British people were fighting to protect, the peaceful village life and individual freedom versus the military regime, persecution and loss of freedom and identity in the war machine. These presentations showed that every class had something to lose and therefore by forgetting class differences and working together to protect the English landscape they would be victorious.  

Throughout the extract, Taylor refers to the homogenous idea of England, which is interchangeable with Britain, a unified national heritage which really started in the 17th century with Francophile propaganda. The English heritage a prize which sets the British apart from everyone else, it is now part of the populist and underdog culture, caring for what is unique in their heritage, what is special to them, which is unknowable and untenable by outsiders. 

I am not sure I am comfortable with the idea of the British part being monolithic and uniform, it is too close to the Norman Tebbit cricket test where consensus is not only demanded and forced, it is taken for granted. It is too much of a central bias, which pretty much ignores any outlying country, state or region, a normative idea of a nationial being only English.  

References

Taylor. J (1994) A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourists Imagination, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press.

Orwell. G (1976) The Lion and the Unicorn, : Ams Pr Inc..

Mischi, Julian. (2009). Englishness and the Countryside How British Rural Studies Address the Issue of National Identity.

 

 

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