4.2: The British landscape during World War II

‘Landscape for Everyone’, published in John Taylor (1994) A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination.

In this piece Taylor discusses the ways in which symbolism of the ‘timeless’ and ‘infinitely different and varied’ English landscape was used during World War II to encourage patriotic emotion and resistance against German ‘industrialisation gone riot’. In 1940 many restrictions were imposed on movement around the countryside and measures were taken to make the geography ‘illegible’ to any invading force. At the same time “the mythic history of the country ‘unconquered for a thousand years’ was central to patriotic propaganda which imagined England to be magical, and centred on the village, the squire and the sense of a community close to the past and to nature. This variegated but close-knit aspect of the English landscape meant that it would ‘triumph’ even if the enemy invaded. ‘ (p198)

Images of the countryside in books and magazines like ‘Picture Post’ emphasised its wholeness ‘belonging to everyone’, underplaying pre-war class conflicts over rights of access. Pictures of ‘sublime’ mountains now had city children evacuees to emphasise the disruption of ‘nature’. Particular landmarks took on symbolic meaning – people looking up for signs of threat and salvation at the cliffs of Dover.“The cliffs at Dover came to stand for a complete ring of natural bulwarks. Moreover, the white cliffs remained unsullied. The barrier of the cliffs also stood in for a message of farewell and recognition as airmen, and troops later, left them behind and returned to them as a marker of what was to be the absolute and inviolate boundary of the country.” 

What really strikes me on re-reading this article after the Brexit campaign, is how these same images of the British countryside are still manipulated as a symbol of independence and freedom. European regulation and migrants coming in and taking over our green and pleasant land. Whereas heartlands of Brexit like East Anglia – which felt like a very hostile place and not at all ‘my country’ (though I am white British and lived here all my life though partly French) would come to a complete standstill without the (very exploited) migrant labour. Big farms (some owned by Arab princes it seems) replacing this Eastern European labour with technology is likely to be far more environmentally disruptive, let alone removal of the many EU environmental protections seen as ‘red tape’.

This is more than a romantic need to hark back to some mythical past in the midst of chaotic change (which has always occurred, starting with prehistoric forest clearances, let alone Viking and medieval carnage, then the Tudor enclosures). A means by which privileged classes in the countryside can protect their interests through creating a common identity of ‘countryfolk’.  It also reflects the need of urban populations (including those living in areas of serious deprivation) to think that somewhere else is cleaner and more healthy – lungs somewhere else to make the urban pollution and waste somehow sanitised and acceptable (despite all the scientific evidence that our whole lifestyle needs urgently to change).



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