England, England, by Julian Barnes

I may have read this book before, years ago. The premise of it – billionaire turns the Isle of Wight into an England Experience/theme park type place – seemed really familiar, and I kept getting a sense of déjà vu while I was reading it (without actually recalling anything about it). This is not meant to be a slam against Julian Barnes at all, just that if I did read it, it was years ago and probably a random discovery from a library bookshelf. If I did read it before, I enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it this time.

There are several major themes in this book, but one of the most important ones (and most explicit ones) is the idea that, eventually, replica becomes reality. This is a stated belief and inspiration when they are planning the park, and it is proven in many different ways throughout the narrative. The actor playing Samuel Johnson, for example, starts dissociating and believing that he actually is Samuel Johnson; the locals playing “peasants” start wanting to sleep rough.  The tipping point of the second part is a showdown between the Merrie Men and the SAS team that stormed the Iran Embassy.

And the third part is the fallout of this new reality, taken to extremes: Old England has now become Anglia, an isolated and isolationist agrarian society based around the Saxon heptarchy. Everything that has internationally defined England has gone to the Island, tourism has collapsed, and the only thing left for England is to become locally focused again.

The idea that replica eventually becomes reality is an interesting one. It starts from the idea that, if it’s more convenient, people are fine with seeing the replica of something rather than seeking out the real thing – an example of this is Michelangelo’s David, in Florence. Then the replica becomes indistinguishable from reality (again, with David, who’s going to say that they haven’t seen it, just because they’ve seen the replica in the square rather than the original in the museum?). And ultimately, the replica becomes as desirable as the reality – especially if reality is difficult or inconvenient to access.

I don’t know if that’s always true, though. I think from a logistical perspective, people are willing to accept replicas in place of reality (buy a postcard or poster of a painting rather than the real thing) but I think that we value things that are more difficult to attain, whether that difficulty comes in the physical object or the experience. I buy prints of paintings I like because I can’t feasibly get the originals – I value an original painting more highly. From a logistical perspective, it’s great that all of the quintessentially English experiences are on one island, easily accessible if you’ve got enough money. From a value perspective, I prefer the journey – the ability to treat each site as its own experience rather than an item on a checklist. From an emotional perspective, I also appreciate the time in between the experiences to absorb and reflect on wherever I’ve just been – if I went to the Island and was faced with Stonehenge next to Robin Hood next to Nell Gwynn’s orange (juice) stall next to Buckingham Palace, I think my brain would explode from overload. (And, for the record, I saw David in the museum, as well as in the square. I also think that one of the reasons that the replica is so easily accepted in place of the original is because it is in the original location, while the original is in an artificial location – so I don’t think the David analogy is quite right for their replica replacing reality argument, but that’s the one that they use, so there you go.)

I also have some serious questions about the society on the Island. For something that is supposed to be a self-contained entity, there are a lot of ways that it defies its containment. The Island simply could not exist independently of the rest of the world, and that’s something that I think that Pitco completely ignores. It works in the context of the book (which is, of course, all that it’s meant to do), but it should never be forgotten that the Island is, in fact, a theme park, not a functioning country the way that it pretends to be. There is no allotment for sick, elderly, or young – presumably they must be shipped over to Dieppe.  If there were an apocalyptic event and tourists could no longer come to the Island, the whole system would collapse. They’d want Anglia’s help then, wouldn’t they? WOULDN’T THEY!

……….whoops, got a little bit carried away there……….

Speaking of Anglia, one of the more intriguing things for me was the list and discussion of “what is England” – England specifically, rather than UK generally, as one of the points of the Island project is to counterbalance devolution. One of my classes on my study-abroad year dealt a lot with the idea of English identity, versus British identity – Scottish independence or at least autonomy was a big deal at the time, and we visited the Scottish Parliament which had either just opened or was just about to, and we also talked a bit about Wales and touched on Northern Ireland (which is a whole other topic in and of itself, beyond even UK devolution). Come to think of it, that might be where I read or at least encountered this book before. Any Notts want to help jog my memory?

Anyway, it’s always struck me as an interesting, and essential idea. What defines a nation? (In the same vein, what defines an individual?) Is identity reliant on how we see ourselves, or how others see us, or some mix of the two? What about when how others see us is radically different from how we see ourselves? How can we adjust the way we present ourselves to others, without altering how we see ourselves? And, eventually, to get back to the main theme, does how we present ourselves, and how others see us, irrevocably alter how we see ourselves and become the reality of our identity, even if we were acting the whole time? Does our replica identity end up becoming our real identity?

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One response to “England, England, by Julian Barnes

  1. Pingback: Musicians in Literature

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