This post is part of an occasional series, which has been produced in response to the PhD study weekend at Cumberland Lodge in June 2016 attended and organised by members of the Sociology PhD cohort at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The theme of the weekend was to explore creative and inventive methods in response to the question ‘how are spaces known through practice and how are spaces practiced through knowing?’
2016 has been a shocking year in many ways. So many taken-for-granted truths have been thrown up into the air, and we are yet to see how they will settle. Not least, the UK’s vote to leave the EU has deeply unsettled many people’s assumptions about the general mood and values of the country.
As others have argued so well, ‘Brexit’ signified the triumph of a remarkable kind of politics of nostalgia, embodied as much by Nigel Farage as by Marine Le Pen across the Channel and Trump on the other side of the Atlantic. While Obama offered Americans a forward-looking vision of hope, Trump has come to power on a campaign that has promised to ‘make America great again’, promising a shift backwards in time, to an imagined golden age of power and prosperity. The Leave campaign was an equally clear case of regressive modernization, to use Stuart Hall’s term, combining ‘progressive’ neoliberal logic of the market with a strong whiff of colonial nostalgia. As Nadine El-Enany puts it, Brexit represented a last-ditch attempt to salvage the shipwreck of the British Empire – and embodied all the racism, self-interest and imagined superiority that Empire implies.
The referendum in June coincided with this year’s Cumberland Lodge trip. We had learned of the outcome early on Friday morning, before leaving for the Lodge at lunchtime – for many of us, following a sleepless night awaiting the results. We were all profoundly shocked at the outcome; disappointed, alienated, and heavy-hearted. The spectre of Brexit haunted the weekend, dominated our conversations and cast a dark shadow over the mood of the trip and our experiences of the place.
Arriving at the Lodge, we were plunged into an entirely different social milieu – it may have been only 21 miles from Goldsmiths, but it felt a world away. Being in this environment while we contemplated and tried to come to terms with the EU referendum result was profoundly odd, and in many ways uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given its history and continuing connections to the Royal Family, the Lodge was filled with reminders of its regal connections, and saturated with imagery and references to the British Empire. Louise Rondel, in her recent blog piece for this series, described the traces of empire that are strikingly present in Cumberland Lodge and the Windsor Great Park in which it sits. Across the park from the Totem Pole (gifted to the Queen in 1958 to celebrate British Colombia’s 100th anniversary as a Crown Colony), a huge copper statue of George III on horseback overlooks the path to Windsor Castle. As well as being famous for his madness, King George was known for losing England’s American colonies in the American War of Independence. The Lodge itself, too, was full of reminders of empire, from examples of art presumably brought back from the colonies, to shelves full of books documenting and commemorating the Queen’s journeys around the Commonwealth.
Caption: Traces of imperial nostalgia in Windsor Great Park and at Cumberland Lodge
But the most striking celebrations of, and nostalgia for, colonialism were not in these history books, but in the magazines scattered around the bedroom and lounge. A cursory flick through a recent issue of Country Life magazine revealed countless ‘lifestyle’ features fetishizing ‘British heritage’, and casual references to empire. An article on the pleasures of living in New Zealand celebrates its likeness to Britain in the 1950s and 60s. The ‘fundamentals and culture’ of New Zealand feel like England once did, writes the author – ‘the structure of the country, its legal system, the police, the handshake to seal a deal, the straightforwardness, the honour, the integrity’ – but, crucially, ‘the nastier side of the modern world has not yet reached here’. Similarly, a feature on St Barths, a small Caribbean island passed between European countries since Columbus landed there in 1493, and still an Overseas Collectivity of France, notes how ‘it’s really the South of France in the tropics’. With its 9,000 inhabitants mostly descended from the French and Swedish settlers of the 18th century, rather than from African slaves as in much of the Caribbean, ‘the lingering darkness of history doesn’t exist here, allowing the island to be simply a paradise away from the hurly burly of modern life’, apparently with no unsightly or unpleasant poverty to distract from ‘the island’s low key, elegant esprit de France’.
These articles romanticise and celebrate the legacies of European conquest and colonisation that have led to these far-flung places resembling England or France of the 1950s, while entirely obscuring and erasing the long histories of domination and violence that they entailed. The language they use effectively equates whiteness with safety and luxury, while blackness is cast as danger, violence and nastiness: the racialised logic on which colonialism relied so heavily.
Caption: Colonial fantasies for sale
Country Life doesn’t just hark back to the good old days of empire; it also displays colonialism as a lifestyle to aspire to. The full-page advertisements (above) for multi-million dollar Caribbean properties for sale – which make up a good chunk of the magazine – offer buyers the chance to live out fantasy-memories of imperial rule. Listings boast of ‘plantation houses’ offering ‘colonial grandeur’ and ‘luxurious, colonial style’. For someone unaccustomed to this world of the super-rich, the straightforward commodification of colonialism – and the racism, misery and violence that it entailed – is quite astounding.
The front pages of the daily newspapers, displayed on a richly polished antique table in the Lodge’s sumptuous lobby, spanned the spectrum of the mainstream media’s views on the EU referendum results. For the ‘Brexiteers’, the referendum result was portrayed as an uprising of ‘the quiet people of Britain’ or as a butterfly breaking free of the constraining box of Europe and going ‘out into the world’ – images and narratives completely at odds with the sense of bewilderment and disillusionment we were feeling.
Caption: Newspaper coverage of the referendum result
Yet, as we have learned from this year’s events, which defied the pollsters and shocked so many liberal and left-leaning people, there is a lot to be said for looking beyond our usual sources of information and spheres of debate. Rose-tinted, romanticised, puff-chested pride in – and longing for – the golden age of the British Empire is alive and kicking, not just in particular political movements but among a much broader section of the media and, perhaps, the public who consume it. Engaging with this sort of media, however unpalatable this is, might be useful if it helps us to hear voices from beyond the ‘echo chamber’ of our chosen media sources and social circles. After all, this echo chamber effect must, in part, be to blame for the profound shock so many of us have felt when faced with the very real prospect of a British exit from the EU, or a Donald Trump presidency – events that we really shouldn’t have been so surprised by, since they tapped into such a strong current of blinkered nostalgia.
Chloe Peacock is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths. Chloe’s research focuses on discourses of crime and punishment, particularly in relation to the 2011 English riots.