Chapter 6

The need for a ‘bit of history’

Place and past in English identity*

Jeanette Edwards

Much has been written in recent years about the burgeoning heritage industry said to have taken hold in Britain since the mid-1970s. Robert Hewison has argued that, at the end of the twentieth century, there is ‘an unhealthy dependency on the past’. He suggests this is due to a crisis in confidence: ‘Had we more faith in ourselves and were we more sure of our values, we would have less need to rely on the images of the past’ (Hewison 1987:138). Patrick Wright had previously extended a similar argument to Western Europe as a whole. Focusing on Britain and on the formation of ‘national pasts’ as political ideology, he writes:

the national past is formed within the historical experience of its particular nation state. Among the factors which have influenced the definition of Britain’s national past, therefore, are the recent experience of economic and imperial decline, the persistence of imperialist forms of self-understanding, early depopulation of the countryside…the extensive and ‘planned’ demolition and redevelopment of settled communities which has occurred since the Second World War…. Similarly, while an anxious readiness-to-receive the past exists as something of a generality in modern everyday life, closer historical attention will also reveal that very different versions and appropriations of the past continue to emerge from different classes and groups—even if these sometimes seem to compete with a shared romantic orientation.

(Wright 1985:25)

Hewison and Wright agree that present-day versions of the past are riddled with romanticism, and that nostalgia is the dominant emotion in this harking after it—a nostalgia that filters out unpleasant items, and reveals only a sanitised version of history. In a recent defence of his

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