Myth and Identity in a Divided Britain: An Interview with James Meek

JOURNALIST AND NOVELIST James Meek is the author of Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, a collection of deeply reported essays that were first published in the London Review of Books and that explore the social and political fissures exposed by the Brexit referendum in Britain. He began his career as a journalist in Scotland, before moving to Kyiv in 1991 to report for the Guardian. After eight years covering Ukraine and Russia, he returned to Britain, and through extensive travels across the country developed a uniquely textured understanding of the changing landscape under both Labour and Tory governments. Private Island, a collection of essays on privatization in Britain, won the Orwell Prize in 2015, while his third novel, The People’s Act of Love, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005. His latest novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time (Canongate), will be published in September 2019.


FRANCIS WADE: Your writing has interrogated ideas around English identity and mythology, and how different myths of Britain “as conqueror” or Britain “as defeated” are used to support particular agendas. Can we really comprehend the current tumult around Brexit without first understanding those myths, and the force they carry?

JAMES MEEK: I think we have to start from the individual, from the personal, because this whole Brexit experience has touched people so deeply. It’s not as if you’re just regarding events taking place; rather, the frame within which events are taking place, which you don’t even realize is there, is suddenly starting to buckle. It’s reached so deeply into people, this sense of disorientation and of things going wrong. So I’m using certain myths — like Robin Hood, for example, or St. George, who slayed the dragon — as frameworks to describe a deeper, more primitive and unfamiliar feeling. It’s easier to talk about Brexit as an enactment of the St. George myth, because what is the story of St. George? It’s the story of saving a people by destroying an obscure, malevolent, powerful, tyrannical force. That is the way a lot of people think, or have been led to think, about the relationship between Britain and the EU, but the way it’s lodged in your psyche is not necessarily put into those words, and the myth of St. George can be used to articulate that. So in the reporting I’ve done there is a lot of concrete data, but I also paid attention to the sources of people’s representation of the world, and to the contrast between the way people describe the world and the actual reality. By interrogating the deep signs and symbols below the level of words, you start to notice things people are saying that might not necessarily be the direct answer to direct questions, but seem to indicate a way of looking at the world. I suppose what I’m doing is an attempt at moving toward a psychology of political representation — representation, that is, in the sense of representing the world.

How do these myths work, or not work, in places that voted to leave the EU? I’m thinking of the long dispatch you wrote from Grimsby, in northern England, where the fishing industry has seen major decline and where people clearly felt their sense of power had been taken away by EU lawmakers.

In Grimsby, it was very clear there was a huge disconnect between people’s idea of what power was in the town, and the reality of it. To me, the reality was that power had left the town but had not gone to Europe. It had gone to various unaccountable organizations headquartered elsewhere, many of them commercial companies. But in the way the port had been privatized once and then privatized again, it had become this sort of private barrier standing between the town and the sea, which was once its lifeline. What I found fascinating was that people’s imaginative representation of the situation in that town hadn’t really caught up with this; they didn’t really seem to have found a myth to articulate it. It seemed to me that the myth that would have been much more helpful for them would have been the Robin Hood story, rather than the St. George story, in the sense that they were captives of absentee landlords who extracted rents from them, rather than them being simply under the power of some simple tyranny that could be slain with a single sword.

The temporal aspect to this upheaval seems important. Do we need to travel back long before the idea of a European Union even took root to understand why certain communities who might place a premium on sovereignty, or who may fear disruption by “outsiders,” would be opposed to membership of any such bloc?

When I was doing a lot of writing several years ago on privatization in Britain I came to feel there was a space of time that was not covered by journalists because it was too long ago, but was not covered by historians because it was too recent. But it was actually in this space of the past — a long generation perhaps, 25 years or so — when a single movement of ideas was formed, was enacted, and died. Lately I’ve come to realize it’s even more complicated than that. In order to talk about privatization, which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, you have to talk about nationalization, which happened early in the 1940s and 1950s. But before that, there was another event, which was also a kind of nationalization, when great swaths of the cultural realm and the social world were co-opted by the state in Britain, which took over all the functions that had been carried out very patchily and poorly, but personally, by charity and religion. I think there’s very little consciousness in Britain of the way that what we now call government is actually a merger that began around the start of the 20th century of the religious state and the secular state. As good as it was that the state took over, it also had the negative consequence of removing any sense among the more benevolent capitalists that they had to worry about the welfare of their workers, because the state was taking the strain. So it’s a process that wasn’t without its negative side.

The other point to make about time, and this became clear when I was writing about the NHS, is that something really has changed, which is that people’s lives are being stretched. People who previously would have lived three generations — young, mature, old — now live for four generations: young, mature, old, very old. I’ve come to see in the stretching of the generations a parallel process to the tensions around immigration. In Britain at least, the whole immigration banter is a kind of surrogate for the tension between the generations. The elderly see themselves in a battle for resources with immigrants, yet these aren’t only traditionally defined immigrants from overseas, but also young people — the immigrants from the future. And young people see the old people as immigrants from the past. I don’t think you can understand what’s going on in Britain or any country in the rich world without understanding the struggles between these three groups of immigrants — young, old, and foreign — none of whom feel entirely secure in their position. When you start to see the world in this way and you start to interrogate official texts it’s surprising how often the language used to talk about old people and the strain they put on health services sounds terribly like this fear of immigrants swamping our services. The othering of the old goes hand in hand with the othering of immigrants.

The final thing about time, and this is obvious but I don’t think is articulated often enough, is that there is a whole arc — the classical era, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Enlightenment, Romanticism, modernity, postmodernism — that brings with it a set of cultural historical assumptions that a lot of people just aren’t really conscious of. And you go out there and you realize that you’re listening to very, very old ideas about how society is, and about how economics works. For a long time before Adam Smith and his peers came along there was a loose set of ideas about how economies work, locked together under the name mercantilism. A lot of people, without knowing it, are still mercantilists: they believe that there is a fixed supply of goods and of jobs, and if “you people” come in there’ll be more competition and fewer things for us. The whole concept of growth hasn’t really filtered down to millions of people. Never mind that they might be economically disadvantaged, they’re not really set up to embrace the discourse of growth. 

The best writing I’ve seen on the current state of Britain is that which telescopes in and out, contrasting grand national narratives with the hyper-local experiences of communities and individuals. How deep into the personal lives of people must we go?

Well I just love talking to people about their lives. I can do it for hours and hours and hours. This work is an excuse to sit with a complete stranger with a cup of tea for three hours and suck their life story out of them. I find that you understand more about the world that way than you would in a more formal interview session with somebody who is quite powerful and knowledgeable, but is very used to the interview environment. So it’s this idea that a fragment will tell the story of the whole if you pay it enough attention, and often there are people who have never been steered into the whole account of their lives before then. I find that if you start by asking somebody where they are from, then from this little seed an enormous tree grows that branches out into all sorts of directions and that really enriches your understanding of the ground on which you stand.

Can you explain the hostility the referendum has caused, and the force of emotions it’s produced? As you’ve written, from one angle all that’s happening is that a set of bureaucratic agreements are being untangled.

My experience working in Russia and Ukraine has very much shaped my reporting in England since I came back in 1999. It was in Russia and Ukraine that I first began to think about the way people actually represent the world. There was one particular set of interviews I did in Kyiv on the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl, and as I was doing these interviews I came to realize that people’s memories of that disaster, even people who were directly involved in it, seemed not to really distinguish between the explosion of the nuclear reactor and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which occurred very soon afterward. So when I asked them about the consequences, they would start talking and I realized they weren’t talking about the reactor at all, they were talking about some disaster with their savings or their pensions that happened as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There’s something similar happening here and maybe in the United States: different streams of resentment aren’t necessarily clearly defined. It’s become a commonplace in thinking and talking about Brexit that people are blaming Europe for some of the economic woes that are actually due to austerity, globalization in general, automation, and so on. But I think there’s also a third stream of resentment, which is the whole cultural, social sense, particularly among men, that they’re being repressed and not allowed to make jokes about foreigners and women anymore, that they’re not allowed to say what they think. I just don’t think these three streams are clearly separated, and it’s made easier by the fact that there is an overlap between the people who are in favor of globalization, the people who are against cultural stereotyping, and the people who are against Brexit.

What I took away from Russia was the importance of understanding the deep effect of a cultural change. It’s generally known by people who take any interest in these things that the collapse of the Soviet Union hurt a lot of people very badly, but what’s less easy to understand is that it wasn’t just about that particular moment. When your whole social and cultural system collapses, it doesn’t just hurt you in that moment; it retrospectively tears through your life, particularly when you’re an older person, and it devalues everything you’ve done. It makes it seem as if the time that you fell in love and got married, or the time you had children, the job you had: all these are somehow tainted because they took place under a regime which is now considered to be damaged goods. I think there’s something similar going on here because people find it difficult to separate the three strands: the European Union, the effects of austerity and globalization, and the changing of what’s culturally acceptable. They feel not only that they are repressed and suffering now, but that their whole lives are being made to seem as if they are a mistake.

You admit to having an “inner Leaver,” despite voting Remain. It seems to be a common dilemma, particularly among liberals who want to stay in the EU but understand its myriad problems and sympathize with those who resent it. How do you reconcile those competing desires?

There is a certain irony in the bien pensant of London looking in horror at, for example, Trump’s ideas for a wall on the Mexican border because, as far as I can tell, more people are dying trying to get into the south of Europe right now than dying getting into the United States from Mexico. We don’t need a wall because we have a Mediterranean, and so it’s quite comfortable to hold the position that walls are bad without acknowledging the barriers we have closer to home. I am a Remainer; I support staying in the European Union. But I’m very aware and uneasy about the fact that by remaining in Europe I remain in an exclusionary, mainly white, post-Christian, rich, fortified space that is extremely restrictive as to who it lets in from the outside. So I suppose the main way I reconcile it is by focusing my dismay on the incompetence with which Brexit is being carried out, rather than the actual idea of leaving the European Union. I’d like Remainers like me to raise our sights and to look wider and farther than the European Union, whether we stay in or not. In the same sort of way that we have a set of goals for climate change, we should ask what are the goals for the world? Surely they should be to get the point where migration is not a response to fear and want but a choice to move from one safe and prosperous country to another. If you frame it in those terms, then you start thinking about goals. Just as stopping climate change involves a set of seemingly impossible goals, nonetheless those are the goals toward which we’re trying to work. I think the same should apply to the world economy and governance around the world.

You’re known as much for your novels as for your journalism. Is there any fiction that helps evoke or explain the social and cultural fault lines of Britain that we’ve seen come into clearer view in recent years?

Certainly in the last few years the novel I’ve read that is most relevant is Middlemarch. It’s set in just the kind of small English town outside London, in the Midlands, that probably would have voted for Brexit. There’s a great tension in the town between the original people and the new people coming in, and in Middlemarch, the new people, the immigrants, are not from overseas but from other parts of the country who are bringing all their new-fangled ideas with them. There’s a wonderful passage when Caleb Garth is trying to persuade a group of local farmers that surveyors should be allowed to survey for the railway across the land they till: “Caleb was in a difficulty known to any person attempting in dark times and unassisted by miracle to reason with rustics who are in possession of an undeniable truth which they know through a hard process of feeling, and can let it fall like a giant’s club on your neatly-carved argument for a social benefit which they do not feel.” Basically, she’s saying you can bring all your brilliant and reasoned ideas to them but they’ll bring their prejudices down like a club on your reason.

Your latest novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time, is set in 14th-century Britain, as the Black Death approaches. You’ve been working on it for six years, but it does grapple with issues around Europe, class, social breakdown, and cataclysm. What questions were you exploring in it?

I wrote it as the events around Brexit unfolded, and so while the two things were going on at the same time, I don’t know whether that affected the way I wrote it or affects the way I now see it, which is perhaps more likely. One of the ideas that originally impelled me to write it was the idea that climate change is coming: it seems like a great disaster; many people are going to die, and I was reading about the Black Death and I thought, yes, here is something that actually happened and it was the worst thing that’s ever happened in European history. Yet at the same time we survived. But as I was writing I actually moved away from the climate change analogy. Toward the end, as Brexit was going on, I looked at the way that the characters were preoccupied with their status and their identity as this great apocalypse threatened to envelop and I thought, actually, this does seem quite like England, and perhaps the United States in the second decade of the 21st century. Even as this huge cataclysm comes toward us, which seems to demand all our energy and our attention, we are obsessing on identity and trying to work out who we are: are we humans, are we Americans or British or Europeans, are we people of a color, are we men, women, aristocrats, priests, are we peasants?


Francis Wade is a journalist based in London. A second edition of his book, Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’, will be published in June 2019.