Dig! Dig! Dig! And your muscles wiill grow big.
Keep on pushing in the spade!
Never mind the worms
Just ignore the squirms
And when your back aches laugh with glee
And keep on diggin’
Till we give our foes a wiggin
Dig! Dig! Dig! to Victory.
(Ministry of Food jingle to promote the 1943 Home Front nutritional self-sufficiency campaign, ‘Digging for Victory’)
…true, for successful excavators, a plan is needed. Yet no less indispensable is the cautious probing of the space in the dark loam, and it is to cheat oneself of the richest prize to preserve as a record merely the inventory of one’s own discoveries, and not this dark joy of the place of the finding itself. Fruitless searching is as much a part of this as succeeding, and consequently remembrance must not proceed in the manner of a narrative or still less that of report, but must, in the strictest epic and rhapsodic manner, assay its spade in ever-new places, and in the old ones delve to ever deeper layers.
(Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin chronicle’ from One Way Street (1940))
To write in general terms about the ‘British edge’ is fraught with risk. When words like ‘nation’, ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ are placed together, historiography has a tendency to degenerate into fairy tale and narrative; multi- and multiply contested traditions to congeal into the singular ‘Great Tradition’: a set of lifeless monuments authored by ‘Great Men’. Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of ‘excavation’ provides an alternative model of history writing. His preferred methods for drawing up the stuff of history to the surface through an attention precisely to the detail are well known—his reasoned preference for pastiche, quotation, aphorism over linear ‘reconstructions’; his preference, too, for ‘exhibiting’ the relations in which particular phenomena are embedded rather than ‘explaining’ their imagined origins.