In praise of the mundane

21st July 2006 at 01:00
David Newnham enjoys a stylish counterblast to the corporate homogenisation that has stripped England of local character

England in Particular: A celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular and the distinctive

By Sue Clifford and Angela King

Hodder Stoughton pound;30

Miscellanies have never been more popular. Search your favourite online catalogue and you will find shoals of them, following in the wide wake of Ben Schott's original and focusing on anything from Jane Austen to "Garden Wisdom" to the football club of your choice.

For "miscellany", of course, you might also read "dictionary", "encyclopaedia" and "complete book of". And yes, a "celebration" is more often than not a miscellany under another name.

But what distinguishes facts from factoids, truths from trivia, is purpose.

And while, on one level, this book is an innocent and alphabetical catalogue of the fine details of English life - everything from Bakewell puddings to quicksands, and from prefabs to gipsies - purpose rings out like a blacksmith's hammer from virtually every one of this volume's 500-plus pages.

Indeed, the word "manifesto" would not have been out of place in the title.

For this book, some three years in the making, is to all intents and purposes an extended manifesto of Common Ground, a lobby group set up in 1982 by Sue Clifford and Angela King, along with Roger Deakin (the author of Waterlog: A swimmer's journey through Britain). The aim of Common Ground is to promote what it calls "local distinctiveness" in the face of the homogenisation that is increasingly apparent everywhere from our high streets to our housing estates and from our shoe shops to strawberries.

By sponsoring wayside art, organising events such as "apple days" and "tree dressing days", and producing books such as this, it hopes to raise awareness of those aspects of English life that, like pie shops and piers, contribute to the spirit of a locality, yet could so easily disappear while everyone is glued to the television.

Now anybody familiar with the German nationalistic literary movement Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) that was to lend legitimacy to Nazi philosophy during the 1930s might be feeling a little queasy at this stage. And that would be understandable. For in the same way as innocent folk dancing has a history of deteriorating into goose stepping, so attempts to pin down this or that genius loci can sound awfully like Norman Tebbit's cricket test.

It is important to stress, therefore, that this catalogue of characteristics is not about Englishness as opposed to, say, Frenchness or Jamaicanness. It is about Englishness as it varies, for cultural, historical, geological or a host of other reasons, from one part of the country to another.

The authors believe that variety and authenticity are under threat as never before, and that the threat comes, not from other cultures or ethnicities (mosques and bagels feature as prominently as harvest festivals and beach huts) but rather from corporations and bureaucrats and purveyors of the ersatz, who, for reasons of power and profit, are happily imposing a monoculture on every inch of the country and every aspect of our lives.

None of which means, of course, that the book cannot be enjoyed simply as a compendium of interesting facts about things which might be commonplace or curious, depending on which locality we find ourselves in. And like all good lucky dips, it should produce surprises for everyone.

Did you know, for instance, that Fisherman's Friends were originally sold in liquid form? Or that the memorable Hovis TV commercial filmed on Gold Hill, Shaftesbury in Dorset (think small boy and brass band) was made by Ridley Scott, who went on to direct Blade Runner? You may know when and how the university boat race began. But look. Here is a map of the Thames between Putney and Chiswick, showing the modern route, as first rowed in 1845.

Indeed, one of the joys of this book is the way in which it has been illustrated. Lavish it isn't: no photographs, just small line drawings, etchings, woodcuts and the like, in a variety of different styles, but only one colour: black. It's part of the pre-World War 2, retro style of the thing, of course, as are the maroon headings, and the restrained typography.

Talking of typography, each letter of the alphabet is introduced by a full-page character set in a different English font. "A" is in Ashley Script, designed by Ashley Havinden in 1955, while "B" illustrates Baskerville Roman, designed by John Baskerville in 1757. It's a nice touch, and one that it consistent with the authors' declared aim of making "the mundane magical".

By mundane, incidentally, they mean that which has not been classified by a tourist authority or marketing agency as picturesque, rare or spectacular and therefore deserving of our attention, albeit in a safely packaged form, preferably as seen on TV.

Cooling towers, council houses, cabmen's shelters and corrugated iron chapels (tin tabernacles) do not fit into those categories. But happily, all are celebrated here.

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