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England, England [J Barnes]

Julian Barnes contributes a previously unseen extract from his novel England, England.

Sir Jack Pitman creates a theme park on the Isle of Wight (=’England England’) that duplicates the tourist spots of England. Within easy walking distance are replicas of Big Ben (half size), Princess Di’s grave, Harrods, Stonehenge, and the white cliffs of Dover. Martha Cochrane is hired by Sir Jack as his official cynic. The novel follows her development from childhood to retirement as a nation struggles to retain its cultural identity. One of Barnes’s finest and funniest novels, England, England calls into question the idea of replicas, truth vs. fiction, reality vs. art, nationhood, myth-making, and self-exploration.

◊  The novelist adds an extra scene to his 1998 satire England, England in which he imagines what happens when the ‘National Coalition’ closes every library down

.   .   .  Read J Barnes’s contribution on The Guardian website:  “The Defence of the Book,”   3 February 2012.

(As Sir Jack Pitman’s project for a replica version of England on the Isle of Wight proves an enormous commercial success, the mainland, or “Old England” as it has come to be known, goes into sharp decline …)

The first signs had been misleading, and greeted by some islanders with delight. After Scotland and Wales had left the Union, and Northern Ireland been reunited with the Republic, Europe lost patience with the sulky rump that remained. Decades of carping from the sidelines, while constantly demanding special favours and the repatriation of powers, were finally repaid. Germany and France, strongly backed by Europe’s newest Celtic adherents, led a swift campaign to evict England. “At last,” as the 93-year-old European President-for-Life, Angela Merkel, put it, “we are repatriating to you your powers, and not just the ones you asked for, but all the other ones as well.”

There was much excitement, as the country, having become smaller and less influential, had also become more xenophobic. The Daily Mail which, after the demise of the Times, was widely referred to as “the newspaper of record”, funded street parties and firework displays. But the euphoria was brief. Europe, not content just to evict England, also wanted to bring her low. Subtle and sometimes unsubtle trade barriers were raised; appeals to international organisations against such tariffs failed. The United States had long been looking westward, and now tended to regard England as an embarrassing ancestor, and a case for humane termination.

Trade collapsed, and the nation’s infrastructure with it. The health service, long privatised, had become known to the poor as the Death Service, since the government was now only responsible for the minimal duty to dispose of dead bodies. For the few surviving rich, there were regular flights to the continent, from which they returned with new German hips, cataract-free Czech eyes, and all manner of French cosmetic enhancement. Pensions were no longer paid and rubbish no longer collected. Looted and burnt-out shops were a common sight; communities gated themselves in; armed guards protected allotments at night.

Poverty threw up a few improvements, like the renaissance of the canal system. The re-establishment of the old barter system was welcomed by many. But it was the Defence of the Book that caused the most surprise. The widespread library protests of the early 2010s, more than a generation back, meant that much of the service had then been saved, an outcome for which all three parties had taken the credit (though it was thought that the ritual suicides of three novelists and a poet outside the Houses of Parliament had proved the tipping point). But little opposition was expected when the National Coalition announced that every remaining library was to be closed within a month. Since the digitisation of all forms of information, libraries – like churches under communism – were inhabited mainly by the elderly, that last generation which held on to the idea of the physical book as an item of value in itself.

Since the contents of libraries were deemed valueless, the Coalition simply instructed its enforcement agency (formerly known as the army) to burn the buildings to the ground. But after the first two incinerations, there were mass protests, and human shields were formed round many libraries. More menacingly, two offices of the enforcement agency were burnt down in retaliation. There was a broad suspicion, especially among the elderly, that once information and culture were only available digitally through the englandwideweb, truth would be easier for the government to control. To the surprise of many, the printed book began to take on a symbolic significance, as once it had done in the early years of printing.

This standoff continued for several months, because even to the National Coalition the notion of scores of incinerated citizens as acceptable collateral damage seemed a little excessive. There was negotiation; promises were made, and then more promises, until – to the government’s surprise – the armies of white-haired activists agreed to stop protecting libraries in exchange for an official promise to keep them open, on terms and conditions to be mutually agreed. Naturally, as soon as the defendants withdrew, the government sent in its enforcers with the instruction that not a book survive. Indeed, there was a ministerial memo proposing that the very word “book” should be withdrawn from public discourse. When the thing no longer existed, the word to denote it would surely not survive either.

But when the official arsonists arrived to carry out their work, they discovered that all the libraries had been secretly emptied of their contents. One by one, often at night, books had been removed to safety. At first they were simply hidden, in attics, hayricks and henhouses. And so the government concluded that it had in any case won: the book had gone into internal exile and would die off when those arm-linking old fools who had held up progress for the length of a summer died off themselves. Yet in this they were much deceived. The truth was only pieced together many decades later. But it seems that at first there was a samizdat circulation of individual books among trusted “readers”. Then, in a bold move started in West Yorkshire, the first underground mobile library was set up by a book-loving milkman, whose horse-drawn cart held a secret compartment in which a few dozen volumes could be hidden. Since books were scarce and forbidden by authority, children suddenly valued them the more. Boldly, adults began meeting in “reading groups”, which passed round a single existing copy of a book and then discussed it in its absence; many of these groups were raided but without success. Finally, books began to multiply, from which the only conclusion to be drawn was that an underground publishing and printing company had been set up. The government, for all its enforcement agencies, was unable to discover either the location or the membership of this enterprise.

Later, much later, this famous Defence of the Book was regularly compared by historians to the way in which culture and learning were kept alive by monks during the dark ages until better, safer times returned. And even if others maintained that this renaissance would have occurred anyway, it is nonetheless true that this Defence of the Book, both actual and symbolic, undoubtedly led to …

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