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5.0 out of 5 stars Dery Disses Downton Abbey, 23 Nov 2013
JF Lawrence (Southampton, UK) - See all my reviews
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England My England centres on an Anglo-Proustian evocation of the writer's exposure to a kind of Englishness in the shape of The Children's Wonder Book of Colour, a kind of encyclopaedia aimed at the kids of middle-class parents that came out after the War. It seems to have been a strangely Arthur Ransome-esque potpourri (Dery compares it to his beloved Wunderkammerer) of mildly racist colonialist propaganda, Boy's Own Paper stories, ornithology, flower pressing and other `suitable' interests for the genteel offspring of the bourgeoisie. I picture an amalgam of Swallows and Amazons, The Dangerous Book for Boys, a Stanley Gibbons catalogue and Kirstie Allsopp exhorting the impressionable little reader to make do and mend and adopt the shabby-chic aesthetic as a viable lifestyle option. Beginning with a disquisition on America's version of Anglophilia and its roots in nostalgia for a more blatantly rigid class system, Dery goes into questions of postcolonial angst, racial politics and the televisual offerings from BBC America. Those US fans of Downton Abbey are aching for a simpler time and a simpler hierarchy.

The essay examines England's own notions of Englishness, displaying an impressive awareness of the current debates and the ambivalence about it on the left. A surprising revelation is the influence of the esoteric joys of Progressive Rock on Dery. Prog was a doorway into a world of erudite rebellion, of deep pondering over lyrics and analysis of album sleeves, the antithesis of the leaden stoner subculture that surrounded him. Jethro Tull in particular illuminated his teenage intellectual's fantasy England, with Ian Anderson's literate evocations of such exotica as the Church of England and the Blackpool Tower. Thick as a Brick proved to be a key text for rabbinical feats of interpretation, offering visions of a strange otherworld as baroque as any dreamt up by Edward Lear or Mervyn Peake.

This multifariously overdetermined fictional England, this Marmite-and-PG Tips teatime of second-order signs, is happily free of any essentialist taint. Mark Dery is well aware of the unreality of his England, that it is a metadiegetic concoction created out of happenstance encounters with a seductive Other. If only the same could be said of the American - and indeed much of the English - Downton Abbey set. It is as unreal and as fascinating as the 60 million numinous Americas that we British carry around in our mythbound minds.

England My England is a typically brilliant Mark Dery performance. Bravura stuff indeed.
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