The following is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for an art exhibition entitled Albionist: Paradise Is Your Birthright, which attempted to look at modern Britain through the eyes of William Blake. For various reasons the exhibition never happened (not least of which being the death of one of its focal figure), although it will be recreated online this December. This essay will be published then as part of a free ebook, along with an article on William Blake by CJ Stone, a look at the Gog Magog hill figures as art by Flinton Chalk, and an alternative founding myth for these islands by Brian Barritt.
Following Danny Boyle's wonderful Olympic opening ceremony yesterday, however, it seems like a good time to stick this online. For any Brits who in no way consider themselves patriotic but were strangely affected by the ceremony, and for any non-Brits who have found themselves looking at Britain and thinking WTF?, this may be give a bit of perspective.
This is an exhibition of Albionist art. Albionism is the recognition of a spirit.
Don’t be too concerned by that. I know that ‘spirit’ is a loaded word these days. It’s used so casually and in so many different contexts that you can never be sure if it refers to something real. To be clear, when I say ‘spirit’ I am not talking about something real. It is nothing that you could measure or contain, nothing material, nothing that has mass or velocity. It is not available in a range of colours and you cannot have it gift-wrapped. It is something that simply doesn’t exist.
It behaves like it exists, of course. But that’s not the same as actually existing.
And you’ve been influenced by it, and you can recognise it. The people in your home and town, they know it too. People no longer living, and people not yet born, in generations moving away from where you are now in both directions, through hundreds of years, then thousands, all these people would recognise the exact same thing.
As I say, it behaves like it exists, and that’s enough.
Albionism is the recognition of a visionary spirit, a spirit that arises from these islands. It raises us up and, cleverly, it also prevents us from falling into the abyss of nationalism. This may seem contradictory, but it will make sense once you look at the aspects of this spirit.
These are the three aspects of Albionism: it is bawdy, anarchic and accepting.
We’ll look at each of those aspects in turn:
Albionism is a bawdy spirit.
Consider The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This features a lusty clerk who, desiring to steal a kiss from a carpenter’s wife, is tricked into kissing an arse sticking out of a window. Anyone British who reads this story will recognise this style of humour. It runs through the Carry On films, post-war seaside postcards, Viz Comic, Hogarth and Little Britain. It is lusty, and base, and crude. It is immediately recognisable, the world over, as being very British.
More than 600 years have passed since Chaucer wrote that tale. Why has that sense of humour not been affected by the passing of those years? During that time cities replaced villages, industry replaced agriculture, population exploded, an Empire came and went and the rest of the world was encountered and absorbed. The daily life of the people of these islands was torn up and rewritten time and time again. How, then, is it that this sense of humour remained unscathed? How is it that completely different people living completely different lives produce and react to the same humour? Here we have a sense of humour that transcends centuries, and there is only one linking thread. That is the island it emerged from.
The story of the crucifixion had been around for nearly 2000 years before Eric Idle thought, “you know, it could do with a song. Something cheery, with whistling”. Always Look On The Bright Side of Life is loved throughout the world, but could it have been written anywhere else? Could it have been written by a Frenchmen, or an American, or a Brazilian? It is difficult to imagine a non-Brit writing that song, and if they had it seems likely that the result would have had a very different charm.
Note that these two examples emerge from a sacred narrative, from the act of pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket and the Crucifixion itself. Neither is an attempt to deny the spiritual. Instead, the sacred setting is used as a tool to increase the delight in mockery. It is like drawing a cock on the entrance to a temple, not because you deny the teachings of the temple, but because it’s the funniest possible place to draw a cock.
Bawdiness itself has a similar function. It is a sexual humour, and its targets are the elements of our personalities that are most clearly revealed as absurd by our sex lives. There is a very good reason why most cultures do not find comedy in sex, and that is because sex should not be funny. If you look at what comedy actually is, it is an awareness of ignorance. Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp does not know that there is a banana skin on the pavement where he walks, but we do. Ricky Gervais’ David Brent does not know that dancing in that way is not acceptable in a corporate environment, but we do. Likewise, the characters of bawdy humour, the hectoring fishwives, the terrified scrawny men and the lust-driven lechers, do not see themselves as we see them. The aim of sex is not to be aware of yourself, it is to stop existing. It is for two people to dissolve away and become no-one.
Which is, of course, what makes bawdy humour so inappropriate and hence so funny.
Likewise, spiritual enlightenment promises overwhelming understanding and omniscience. Albionism doesn’t deny that, but it knows that gaining omniscience makes comedy impossible because it removes the necessary ignorance. Luckily, though, we are not enlightened yet. We live in a realm of comedy and music. We’ll be in eternity for long enough but for now at least, arses are funny.
Albionism is an anarchic spirit.
Anarchy is not chaos. Anarchy is an absence of leaders or authority. Anarchy can produce order, but to do so requires a practical mind. It is what works that matters, not what makes sense.
In their book Blighty Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur spent a year exploring the matter of Britain and came to understand how practicality defined the natural character far more than common sense. At the end of their journey they wished to perform an act to mark its end and, inspired by all the Druids they met along the way, knew that making something up was a reasonable solution when there is a lack of a genuine ritual. In this spirit they headed for the sea, with the aim of making a sacrifice to the waves by throwing in some food. But what food? A bitter argument built up between McArthur, who wished to throw a chicken into the sea, and Lowe, who felt that throwing a chicken into the sea was not the sort of thing he wished to put his name to. The pair became deeply entrenched in these positions and, as their argument became increasingly bitter, a successful outcome seemed unlikely.
Eventually they arrived at the coast and went to buy food from a local Spar. Here they found, shrink-wrapped and all but ignored in the corner of the fridge cabinet, half a roast chicken. This, clearly, was the answer. It was a compromise that made no sense whatsoever, but it was a compromise that they both could accept. Hence, their year long quest ended with the ritual throwing of half a chicken into the sea, and a profound point about the national character was demonstrated.
You can see this at work in much of the British state, a hodgepodge of arcane and unjustifiable institutions that have survived the centuries for no other reason than they (just about) sort of work. The monarchy is a prime example. The notion of a hereditary monarchy is not easy to defend, as much of the rest of the world would be quick to argue. Yet we keep ours for practical reasons, because the alternative is to have a politician as Head of State.
Politicians are largely unaware that they are nothing but middle management, doomed to be swept away by fate and great movements which they neither understand nor control. They believe that they have some form of ‘power’, some form of ‘authority’. This delusion of authority means that those who assume the symbolic role of Head of State infect the idea of their nation with their own dysfunctional ego. On a practical level, we keep the monarchy because we recognise that an idiotic system is better than a cancerous one.
The monarchy showed a deep understanding of the spirit of the nation when they cast off any pretence of power in favour of a purely symbolic existence. They are our pets, and we look after them. And yes, we probably do spend too much money on them, and they can misbehave and we were wrong not to get some of the spare ones neutered, but look at them! Look how funny they are, look at their little faces! You could argue that it is cruel, I suppose, keeping them caged up like that, unable to live a natural life. But they don’t seem to mind, do they? You don’t hear them complain. What we have here is a system that works (provided, of course, that they only people who take it seriously are the tourists).
Keeping the royal cage supported, however, does involve an elaborate system of private schools, private clubs, and the fostering of a pretence of elitism on many thousands of innocent victims. We need to be honest here; this is cruel. These people, who think themselves ‘the upper class’, could have lived and enjoyed genuine, valuable lives instead of the fake, delusional existences we condemn them too.
I don’t claim this system is perfect.
What has this got to do with anarchy? With anarchy, you have to work things out yourself. By denying authority in others you must become responsible for yourself. You have to find a way, and if the only way that works is idiotic it is still the only way that works. Nobody is responsible for you, because nobody has authority over you.
It is this aspect that in part explains the importance of comedy in Albionism. The British way of dealing with a problem, namely by taking the piss and waiting for it to go away, is remarkably effective. Consider the alternative, such as Richard Dawkins’ attempts to attack religion through logic and anger. Dawkins was angered, to take one example, by organised religion’s habit of indoctrinating children through education. As a result of his attacks, however, the monotheists dug in, came out fighting, and now there are many more religious schools operating or planned in this country than before. As a result, he has undone much of the good work achieved by the Monty Python team in The Life of Brian. The tactic of taking the piss and waiting for things to go away is preferred over logic and anger simply because it works better.
In both of these aspects we see a refusal to take seriously any claims by others to have authority over ourselves. This brings us to the third aspect of Albionism.
Albionism is an accepting spirit.
Head out, away from noise and distraction and into the country. See the moors and downs, walk the coastal paths and the woodlands. There is a voice you will hear, when it is quiet enough. A gentle female voice which you will hear time and time again, when you are still.
I’m not making any distinction about “England”, “Scotland” or “Wales” here. These are arbitrary distinctions produced by quirks of history. Different corners of these islands have different personalities, sure, and perhaps this Albionist voice is clearer in some places than others. But you can hear that voice on every part of these islands for every part is wonderful, and enchanted.
Have you heard it? It is perhaps louder in older places, where you are put in the context not of now but of always.
That voice says, “You are welcome.”
It tells you that you are in the right place. This is where you are supposed to be. You are welcome.
And that voice says the same to everyone, it always has and it always will. That voice was heard by the Celtic immigrants when they first arrived in these islands. It was heard by the Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans. It was heard by the West Indians, the Indians and the Poles. And yes, not everyone listens and not everyone hears it. Some people shut themselves away in their suburban prisons and hide from it by immersing themselves in the Daily Mail and lashing out whenever they feel joy start to stir within them. But everyone has the potential to hear it, regardless of how tough their lives are or how deprived their backgrounds.
Not everyone understands it, or at least not at first. You can see it this in inner-city grime artists returning from the Glastonbury Festival, aware that something inside them has changed but not having the context to understand exactly what. Sometimes it will take a generation, sometimes even two. But it doesn’t matter how strong the original culture or family is, or how little an individual cares to listen. At some point they will hear, “You are welcome”, and they will feel a connection and they will feel at home. And at that point, they know they are British. The Albionist spirit always wins out.
When Nick Griffin, the leader of the quasi-fascist BNP, appeared on BBC’s Question Time programme he was asked about a series of BNP adverts which featured Winston Churchill. The question was whether these adverts misrepresent Churchill, a renowned fighter of fascists who would have been appalled to be used this way by such a party. But this was the wrong question. What they should have asked him is whether the word ‘British’ in ‘British National Party’ was in any way justifiable. For whatever you think of the British, there is no way, no conceivable way, that they would line up in jackboots and march behind Nick Griffin. There is no-one alive who could put their hand on their heart and swear that this is in any way possible – not even Nick Griffin.
Loyalty to a leader is a temporary thing in these islands, granted for practical reasons when it is necessary. And it is necessary, sometimes, to get things done. National Health Services don’t build themselves, you know. In most circumstances, though, a leader’s self-proclaimed authority is a cause for ridicule. We can live with it because we know that by throwing shit and stones we can prevent ourselves from ever falling for it.
That voice, that understanding that we are welcome and accepted here, is all we need. It is enough to support us and give us confidence. Why would we need an authority over us when we have that? Why indeed would any individual, who hears the same voice, try to claim authority over others? The only answer is that they are deluded, and the only response is to take the piss.
It is a hang-up from World War II, but we are too harsh on the fascists. So they have an overwhelming need to hang out with men with a similar skin colour to themselves? Who are we to judge? Provided they harm none, we should accept them for what they are and respect this desire for the company of similarly-skinned others. Why should they not have special clubs where they can go? We fear their potential for violence, but left alone in their special clubs alongside men with skin just how they like it, would they be so angry? They will always be a small minority, it is true, and they will always be funny with their shiny boots and shiny heads. But surely they are as welcome here as everyone else?
Is this not the famous British sense of “fair play”? When no authority is taken seriously, there is no way to justify one individual getting special treatment over others. And so, we queue. We applaud Pakistan or Sri Lanka when they outclass us at cricket. We create organisations for the greater good, such as the NHS and the BBC, and we feel a deep sense of loss when the capitalists destroy such organisations, such as the Royal Mail or British Rail.
Look at the idealised British folk heroes: Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond or Doctor Who. These are all people who are heroes because of their bravery and exceptional skills, not because of any rank or status. They may mix with figures of authority, they may even work for them, but they never lose their anti-establishment grounding. More importantly, they are driven not by personal gain but by the desire to do the right thing, to promote the greater good. If you look at the narratives of other cultures, this is surprisingly rare. American folk heroes, for example, tend to be gangsters or cowboys, men whose focus is their own personal freedom and gain.
This sense of ‘fair play’ and the ‘greater good’ follows naturally from this welcome that requires no authority.
There are those who have tried to deny that voice for their own gain. But no-one has succeeded in drowning it out yet.
Chances are, it will always be there.
Albionism, then, is a bawdy, anarchic, accepting spirit. These aspects, in turn, make it an anti-establishment spirit. But is it also true to say that it is a visionary spirit?
Is it visionary in the sense of William Blake, seeing a tree filled with Angels in Peckham Rye?
Is it visionary in the sense of Francis Crick, suddenly understanding the double helix structure of DNA whilst under the influence of LSD?
Is it visionary in the sense of Doctor Dee, rushing from the counsel of the Virgin Queen to converse with spirits?
Is it visionary in the sense of Dickens, struggling against the injustice of Victorian capitalism yet still able to create something as beautiful as the Ghost of Christmas Present?
Albionism is not about looking up to these visionaries. They have no innate status over us, for all that we may enjoy marvelling at their genius. Albionism is not a request to respect them; it is an invitation to join them. We have no need of authorities to grant access to our Higher Selves, we just need to help each other up. It is no coincidence that this country, which gave the world everything from football to democracy, from the Beatles to the Industrial Revolution, from Shakespeare to Newton, never gave the world a religion (with the possible recent exception of earth spirit-based Wicca.)
Or to put it another way: Look for the Albionist spirit.
Look for it in the green turf Mohican that a protester slapped on the head of a statue of Churchill.
Look for it in the cock of the Cerne Abbas Giant.
Look for it in the foam pie thrown at Rupert Murdoch in parliament.
Look for it in the catchphrase, “They don’t like it up ‘em!”
Look for it in our complete bafflement about the building of Silbury Hill.
Look for it in the Restoration of the Monarchy, after a decade of Cromwell.
Look for it in the Beatles making a TV film to be shown to the whole nation on Boxing Day 1967, and coming up with Magical Mystery Tour.
Look for it in safety pin through the Queen’s nose on Sex Pistols’ record sleeves. Look for it when Jeremy Paxman patronised Dizzee Rascal on Newsnight and Dizzee just sampled the whole thing and used it as part of his Glastonbury set.
Look for it in the Blitz spirit, and the insistence that Hitler only had one ball.
Look for it and you will find it everywhere. Look for it until you are saturated in it and until you can see it running through your history, culture and the ruts of your own brain like the words running through the length of a stick of Blackpool rock.
Look for it amongst the content of this exhibition.
And then remember, it doesn’t exist.
I was very clear about that at the start. This is not something that is objectively real.
Then look at it again, and ask yourself what it is that you are looking at.
Now you can answer that question for yourself:
Is Albionism a visionary spirit?