The Hangman’s Ancient Sunlight
17 Jul 2003 0 comments. tbs.pm/1910
The strange story of the romantic left and the agrarian right
Did you ever see a spokesman for the National Farmers’ Union on television in the 1970s, perhaps on a news bulletin or on one of the regional farming programmes which were a cornerstone of the long-defunct federal ITV structure? If so, there’s a strong chance it was a former member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and a leader of the Blackshirt movement.
Bob Saunders, the “Blackshirt Farmer”, became TV spokesman for the NFU after he had only missed election as Vice-President of the union by one vote, after he had announced that he had been against the Second World War. He was even awarded an OBE for his services to farming, and he worked with Jorian Jenks – founder member of the Soil Association, editor of its journal “Mother Earth” and regarded as one of the fathers of the organic movement, but also a confirmed Mosleyite – on the Agricultural Council of Mosley’s post-war Union Movement.
A paradox instantly displays itself. The NFU is, like all good modern Tories, concerned with little more than instant profitability and the quick buck, and for this reason it has been generally hostile to the organic movement for most of the post-war period. But that is a relatively mild and unimportant paradox compared to all the astonishing contradictions and bizarre analogies that can be drawn when one studies the differences and similarities between the romantic-ruralist left and the agrarian right, the radical green movement and the neo-pagan, back-to-the-land fringe of conservative thought.
It is a regrettably neglected area of study in mainstream journalism, presumably because most of the UK press is still stuck on linear, old-fashioned ideas of Left and Right, and blind to anything more intriguing and unexpected. It often seems that the romantic-ruralist fringes of the left and right hate and oppose each other all the more passionately precisely because they can’t believe – or, perhaps, they can privately sort of believe, but they don’t want to publicly admit – that people on the other political “side” could possibly have so much in common with them.
As a movement of the left, romantic ruralism has had a bad time these last 25 years. The kneejerk rejection of anything that could be associated with Conservatism (although, ironically, the Thatcher and Major years were really all about the Tory party definitively abandoning the countryside in favour of suburbia, in a way it could never have psychologically done under Baldwin or Macmillan, however much suburbanisation was under way then), the emphasis on multiculturalism (and hence dismissal of those areas that still have an almost entirely white population), the tribalistic clinging to heavy industry even as it was being eroded, followed by the fashionable “newness” and “modernity” of New Labour … all have created a situation where “the left” is widely identified almost entirely with urban and cosmopolitan life (the make-up of the House of Commons actually tells a rather different story – some of the more radical Labour MPs represent rural seats gained only in 1997, while many Blairites sit for the safer urban constituencies). In the late 1960s and early 1970s – the era of E.F. Schumacher, John Seymour, Edward Goldsmith’s “Blueprint for Survival” and suchlike – it was a different story.
On the afternoon of 2nd May 1997 Neil Kinnock said on BBC Television that the sense of excitement and renewal that young people must have been feeling at Blair’s victory reminded him of how he had felt as a young man at the time of Harold Wilson’s two election victories in the mid-1960s. The Wilson era was indeed the precursor to Blairite New Labour in many ways, but its obsessive techno-modernism produced not only the expected reaction from the purists of Old Labour – essentially an urban, industrial phenomenon – but a counter-movement from what would initially have seemed like a most unlikely source, the pop-cultural left itself.
British folk-rock and aspects of hippiedom and psychedelia clearly had more to do with their own take on ancient mysticism and timeless source material than they had to do with much of what was being promoted around them. “Getting it together in the country” rapidly became almost as much of a cliche as “the white heat of technology” had already become (it was, however, very much an urban/bohemian middle-class movement: rural working-class bands of the 60s and 70s, such as The Troggs or Mott The Hoople, were fully immersed in American trash culture).
A close friend of mine – who, ironically, grew up in Peterborough, which Labour failed to gain in 1966 by three votes – travelled to the Wye Valley and the Black Mountains in 1971, a voyage chronicled here. On the surface, it seems like an extension of the counterculture and student radicalism at the time. Yet it seems hard to directly connect such a pilgrimage to the music of, say, Jimi Hendrix, The Who or The Rolling Stones, while one can trace clear cultural links between such a journey and the old Official British Culture that had existed a decade or more previously.
Look at the Radio Times from 9-15 September 1961 and you’ll find a live church service was being broadcast from Grasmere (where Wordsworth lived, as somewhat mockingly alluded to in The Smiths’ “Panic”, and in an area where the capitalist rush of commercial TV had just arrived) while the national Home Service was repeating a Welsh Home Service programme from two months earlier chronicling a journey down – yes, you’ve guessed it – the Wye Valley. Head even further back to 19-25 June 1955, and there was a live TV outside broadcast of midsummer twilight at Tintern Abbey (which, significantly, gave its name to a short-lived British psychedelic band from 1967/68, with a decent cult following today) and a schools radio programme on Wordsworth.
It was as if the new generation were taking the loose cultural backdrop to their already distant childhood and totally reanimating it, choosing it as a preferable option to the bright and shiny New Britain promoted so obsessively in the mid to late 60s, and crucially stripping it of its conservative and restraining elements. Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band probably defined it best when, explaining the title of their epochal 1968 album “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter”, he said that “the hangman is the last 20 years of our lives and the beautiful daughter is now”. It was as if a whole generation was consigning mainstream British conservatism and Mosleyite eco-fascism all the more effectively to the status of the hangman by taking some of the territory which the hangman might have had a claim to.
I often think that they succeeded in this partially because the agrarian right was largely in abeyance at this time – the Mosleyite agrarians had largely faded from view due to old age and political changes, while the Third Positionist axis (the direct descendent of 1920s/30s eco-fascism, and one of many far-right groups that the British National Party leader Nick Griffin was part of before he began his current involvement with aggressive, in-yer-face urban populism) had yet to emerge. However, there are some intriguing family links.
Henry Williamson (1895-1977) was one of the most prominent exponents of the inter-war Agrarian Right – he was most famous for “Tarka the Otter” (1927) and a number of other books based around a mystical, eloquent worship of the nature and landscape of the area of North Devon where he settled in 1921. Williamson’s literary reputation has suffered in later years because of his support for Mosley and his membership of the British Union of Fascists – he believed in the “awakening” of all the white European peoples living in harmony with each other, and regarded his restoration of a derelict Norfolk farm in the late 1930s as part of the same spiritual journey as Hitler’s “awakening” of the German people.
He opposed the Second World War, partially because he related to the “cleanliness” of Nazi Germany and to its neo-pagan belief in agrarianism, and partially because he had felt an affinity with the German soldiers while in the trenches during the First World War, and believed that the British and German peoples were natural spiritual allies and should never fight each other (this belief in unity between Britain and continental Europe would also inspire Mosley’s post-war Union Movement, and would find a bizarre echo in Enoch Powell’s prediction that Britain would end up as an ally of the Soviet Union in a war against the USA).
But there are aspects of Henry Williamson’s life and work that intriguingly anticipate the Romantic Left as later defined by the ruralist wing of the hippie movement. His official website comments that, when he first moved to the North Devon village of Georgeham in 1921, Williamson “must have presented an extraordinary sight to the villagers … dressed so casually that he often wore no shoes, sleeping out in the summer, swimming naked, throwing apples at passers-by … his ‘strangeness’ was compounded by the friends that he had, particularly his equally wild companion who shared his cottage to begin with … and also the succession of young ladies with whom he had intense relationships. He tried to join the activities of the established social circle, joining the tennis and sailing clubs, but they could not understand his eccentric behaviour and wild manner and tended to ostracise him, whilst the village people did not understand him either. He was regarded with suspicion, considered an outsider and a very strange young man, being called ‘funny’ or even ‘mazed’ by the locals.” This would be a remarkably accurate description of the reaction to the Incredible String Band and the other urban middle-class bohemians who left the cities in search of utopia half a century later.
While recently struggling to remember the phrase Williamson used to evoke “authenticity” and connection with the land and one’s ancestors – the phrase was in fact “Ancient Sunlight”, the name of the semi-autobiographical chronicle of novels which Williamson wrote in his later years – I initially thought of “The Inner Light”, the title of a George Harrison song from the late 1960s. There isn’t much difference between “barleybright”, the term Williamson used to describe his vision of a perfect, almost mythical human being, and “sparklebright”, a compound word that Dave Cousins of the early 1970s band The Strawbs claims to have made up while writing the song “A Glimpse Of Heaven” (also inspired by a Devonian setting).
Most fascinatingly of all, Henry Williamson’s youngest son Harry Williamson, born in 1950, immersed himself in the subcultural scene in the late 60s and early 70s, working at the London Rainbow Theatre, becoming involved with the early Glastonbury festivals, linking up with the quintessential hippie band Gong and, remarkably, co-writing with Anthony Phillips (an early member of Genesis) an orchestral suite based around his father’s most famous book, “Tarka the Otter”. While other people from profoundly un-pop backgrounds to have lost themselves in pop music (most obviously Tim Westwood, with his High Anglican father) had to break all ties with everything their family had previously stood for before they could begin their new careers, and sometimes refuse to talk about their childhood memories, Harry Williamson found a subcultural niche for himself and, within it, he could still invoke the work of his father, an agrarian Mosleyite. There is absolutely no way that he could have done so had he been involved in any of the other youth subcultures of the last half-century, from rock’n’roll to punk, early reggae to current hip-hop.
There are so many intriguing parallels to be drawn between the twin tributaries of romantic ruralism. In an earlier essay of mine, known as “The world has changed” on this site and published elsewhere under the title “Why the hunting fraternity may be turning violent”, I suggested that John Peel’s professional name gained new significance in the light of his acceptance into the Radio 4 that the hunting fraternity still believe should be theirs and theirs alone (“John Peel” derives, of course, from an old hunting song – the broadcaster’s real name is John Ravenscroft).
I have since discovered another irony in Peel’s name, having come across a book from 1970 called “Country Talk” by one J.H.B. Peel, the first of several volumes of extracts from his Daily Telegraph columns which pretty much define the gentle paternalism of the old romantic ruralist right (this, remember, was the era when the Telegraph was still run as a sort of upper-middle-class cottage industry by Lord Hartwell’s family, well before it was taken over by Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel with their hysterical support for the aggressive hawkishness of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, which now drowns any remaining traces of old Tory romanticism that may survive within that paper). Around 1970 the other J. Peel, then in his unkempt-beard-and-dungarees phase, was championing the eccentricity and spirituality of the romantic ruralist left, writing sleevenotes for the first Pentangle album and running the Dandelion Records label (which, like EMI’s Harvest imprint, could only have been so named in that era – the entire pop-cultural left would have recoiled at the very word “dandelion” a decade before, and a decade later they would do so again).
And then, of course, there is the Soil Association. The pro-organic group was set up in 1946 under the influence of Lady Eve Balfour, and in its early days it was dominated by people like Jorian Jenks and Rolf Gardiner, linking it to the Agrarian Right and to the suspicion that it extended “care for the soil” over the edge into the idea of “blood and soil” (Prince Charles would surely fit in with that axis much better than he does with the predominately left-leaning environmentalist movement we have today). Between 1967 and 1973 it went through a number of tumultous changes – the new green-left generation led by Edward Goldsmith initially took control, before they overreached themselves financially and almost dragged the whole organisation under. Lady Eve Balfour, who had retired disillusioned with the new drift, returned to hold it together, and the Association existed at a relatively low profile through the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s, with much of the energy of the growing organic movement redirected to new, smaller organisations.
In 1983, in a deeply necessary counter-movement to the Thatcherite tide of the day, the new generation returned and definitively took control of the Soil Association, making it a far more visible, campaigning group than it had been before, finally establishing a high profile for the association and for the organic movement more generally. But looking back to the dramatic divisions within the Soul Association in the early 70s, swinging first one way then the other, and seemingly capturing the spirit of the moment one day and almost going bankrupt the next, one has a striking mental picture of the radio listings pages in a Radio Times of the era, with a picture of Bridget St John doing a Peel session on one side of the spread, and the gentle journeys of Radio 4’s “The Countryside In …” series on the other. Progressives and conservatives fighting for control of a certain territory, opposing each other all the more because they knew they had shared interests. The important thing, as ever, was the perspective from which they came at those interests.
The intriguing crossovers and the strong divisions between radical left and authenticist right are among the most fascinating political details of our time. It is why Edward Heath’s claim in 1973, when he was Tory Prime Minister, that “the alternative to (economic) expansion is not an England of quiet market towns linked only by trains puffing slowly and peacefully through green meadows. The alternative is slums, dangerous roads, old factories, cramped schools, and stunted lives” is probably the most effective statement ever by any politician as a challenge both to an axis of his own party (in this case romantic Tories of the Richard Body ilk) and the radical fringes of the “other side”. It is literally impossible to imagine Tony Blair making a statement that would have equal effect as a challenge both to hardline socialists and to whatever radical opposition he might face from the Tory benches (although there is, admittedly, very little of that at the moment – what the Tories still call radicalism most of us call “rehashed free-market ideas from 20 years ago”).
And it explains, perhaps, why someone posting to the alt.politics.nationalism.white newsgroup in 2000 could reproduce the songs of Robin Williamson (no relation to Henry and Harry, incidentally), both solo and with the Incredible String Band, amid the usual BNP newsletters and anti-Semitic sneers. While there is absolutely nothing inherently right-wing or racially “pure” or separatist about the soaring mysticism of the lyrics – I love them at the same time as loving what is often called “urban” music – it is possible, and in fact comparatively easy, to imagine someone liking them and putting their own spin on them as a justification for eco-fascism and the forced return of the whole of humanity to their “authentic” roots whether they want it or not (you could call it “Tolkienisation” – J.R.R. Tolkien is to this sort of mysticism what his fellow Worcestershire native Edward Elgar is to the more straightforward Middle England type of cultural Toryism, the most frequently-invoked figure, and the one whose true sympathies are most regularly discussed).
Songs like “Waltz of the New Moon”, “Job’s Tears” and “The Iron Stone” are not works of racial separatism or white supremacy, but I don’t think they are actually threatening to such dogmas by their very existence in the way that much other pop and rock music is. Compared to much of what came before and has come since, they are blank canvasses on which you can place whichever “meaning” suits your own priorities. In short, like the ideological crossover which enables white supremacists to quote songs associated with the radical left in the first place, they are uncertain, and they do not make their meaning clear instantly. I know it alienates me from most of the media, but I would rather feel that way than feel certain about anything. It is, after all, the nature of the desperately confused era we live in, and it is the key to the mystery of the left-right interzone of the Hangman’s Ancient Sunlight.