REVIEW: Julian Barnes’ England, England

By Zoe Maggs
Subedited by Charlotte Bale

Satire, fantasy, dystopia; political and social commentary: Julian Barnes’s novel, England, England, paints a relentlessly negative image of 80s England, showing Thatcher’s entrepreneurial capitalism as a force turning the nation into nothing more than an assortment of market-friendly products to be bought or sold.

In part one of the novel, all is seemingly unproblematic for the protagonist, Martha Cochrane. As a child thriving in a close-knit community in the mid-20th century countryside, Martha’s uncomplicated life is cleverly matched by the simple realist lens which narrates it; Barnes’s way of hinting at an idyllic, pre-Thatcherite England. But all that changes in the 80s – an era, the novel would have us believe – obsessed with success and greed. When Martha’s world comes crashing down in an abrupt event, Barnes’s playfulness with the narrative style is used to mimic this change.

As we move into later parts of the novel, postmodern elements of parody and general mimicry are prolific, used to provide an amusing yet bleak outlook of England’s heritage industry. This is when we meet Sir Jack Pitman, a business tycoon who is out to make big bucks by selling ‘English’ heritage to anybody who has the money to pay for it. Pitman’s proposals to build a theme park of “Englishness” – fit for its 21st century consumers – are only made more absurd by his intentions to use the Isle of Wight, in its entirety, as the canvas to do so. Through such mega-money-making schemes, Barnes invites us as his readers to take a long hard look at the side effects of consumerism.

Barnes does not lay off from throwing a few literary punches in the general direction of the conservative government, either. Then novel takes a very unfavourable tone indeed, when attacking the logic behind Thatcher’s dissemination of industrial assets in the UK. Historical images of pit closures – real miners providing mere performances of their previous roles as their workplaces are transformed into tourist destinations – readily come to mind as Pitman similarly speculates that the current residents of the Isle of Wight will be “grateful future employees”; “its many thatched cottages will make perfect tea shops”.

Sir Jack’s intentions to paste a depthless image of Englishness into a leisure resort is not a meaningful way of re-establishing England’s worth in the postmodern world. Yet, while it is Barnes’s complaint that contemporary England has been rendered into a series of meaningless, commodified images, any comments made on the country when it was at the height of the empire are made with a tone of irony, not nostalgia. Amidst Sir Jack’s plans, the nation’s colonial past is discussed in rather unfavourable terms. England, the team identify, used the East as a “brothel”, and is subsequently due to become exploited itself.

While it seems that Sir Jack’s plan is a case of marketing-gone-mad, it is Barnes’s intention to make the reader uncomfortable as they identify that financially speaking, the project is actually a tremendous success. The ease with which parliament and the monarchy are bought by the project is a telling critique of our nation’s figureheads; capital controls all, as any democratic influence they once had is replaced by the plans of greedy developers and conniving business tycoons. But all is not settled, and we soon see the novel take a downward spiral when the grateful employees, or, residents of Isle of Wight, become all too familiar with their new roles…

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