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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Howls of Fear and Loss, an English Dream

This is an essay-review of England’s Dark Dreaming, Paul Watson's second book of artwork, which can be purchased here.

England’s Dark Dreaming has documented my artistic practice for the past two years. The series consists of 24 charcoal drawings, each one metre high and seventy centimetres wide, the figures depicted more-or-less life-size. Each drawing emerged from one-or-more of nearly thirty three-hour life drawing sessions with one of nine different life models scheduled specifically for this project. Each drawing was then worked on further for several hours, until the individual piece was finished. (Introduction to the First Edition)

In his forward to England’s Dark Dreaming, the author David Southwell describes this book of Paul Watson’s drawings and writings as having ‘come to surface through Paul’s harrowing of the fields of English dreaming.’ Citing especially the gothic and eerie traditions (but also the lost futures of science fiction), Southwell praises the volume for belonging to ‘the English tradition of digging stuff up that disturbs the structures of class and power.’ We are here, as an audience to these pieces, to see through, to unearth, to unpick place and its built up associations. It's a book that accomplishes all of this; through rich gothic imagery and incisive prose, Watson gives us a glimpse of the myths running underneath the surface of current power contests and nostalgia projects, which define modern England. And then to something else.

Southwell furthermore notes that during periods, such as our own, ‘of radical cultural and economic change, Romanticism also rises.’ This sometimes has disturbing results; at its worst it becomes ‘caught up in the areas of conservation and nationalism’. The gothic, in this schema, is an antidote to the sickness of glorification of false pasts, arriving in the form of ‘antibodies inherent in myth and the land itself.’ For Southwell, justly, the gothic as antidote ‘is how Watson’s work is situated, an uncovering of repressed truths, shared but buried under layers of seductive and dangerous deceptions.’ Myth is given emancipatory and liberatory purposes here.

In his own introduction to this, the second edition of the book, Watson describes how it ‘documents, through metaphor, the fragmentation of England over the course of the first two years after the Brexit referendum’. That is, ‘to show the pathway that got us here.’ He cites the decision of the BBC to platform the far-right on its high profile Question Time programme in 2009 as ‘a significant turning point that allowed far-right conspiracy theories and extremist views to start appearing far more regularly in the British media and amongst Conservative politicians.’ It is these deceptions, the false promises of reactionary prejudices and insularity, against which the work sets itself.

Watson elucidates further in the next essay, where he contemplates an ongoing seismic upheaval in rethinking Britain, drawing on ‘landscape, rewilding, psychogeography, archaeology, myth and hauntology as well as politics and government.’ Despite the excavation of the past involved, sometimes in ways that are celebrated, the artist-author is also at pains to point out that the aesthetic sources he draws on are not of the buried and distant past, but most of all ‘with contemporary politics’; with (or, more accurately, against) the far right of today and its ‘anger, violence, threat’. Not as commentary or sloganeering, nor as narrative or illustration, but as statements on the present, an ‘Albionic Gothic’ (a semi-humorous term) in the form of a documentary.

In the course of his descriptions of the various drawings, Watson conjures David Bowie alongside the Long man of Wilmington chalk hill figure in Sussex; he summons up Hekate alongside nationalist baiting Daily Mail newspapers; Gustave Doré's illustrative work on Dante’s Divine Comedy juxtaposed with the jingoistic rhetoric of betrayal that has become so popular; a benevolent incarnation of Queen Mab, a celebratory May Queen, and wild Green Man. ‘The Spirit of Albion, Memory of the Land’ takes its inspiration from the discovery that Somerset’s ‘Cheddar Man’ had ‘dark or dark to black skin, blue/green eyes and dark brown possibly black hair’. As the drawings continue, they become more mythical, but also start to hint far beyond the confines of a squalid and inward chauvinism.

The eyes that are depicted in many of these works—especially with figures that imply violence and death—are often closed or obscured by the perspective of the viewer, or by hair or shadows. These seeing portals can appear as gaping voids in the faces of Watson’s subjects. An example is The glorification of Ignorance, where a portly, short man charges caped in the union flag, appearing to shout, which is captioned in the book as a work that ‘probably least requires any explanation or commentary.’ What this is documenting, the title subject, comes to the fore in the final essay of the book, from which the overall title derives, ‘Deep England’.

'Deep England' is the concept being deconstructed, but also the unifying one for the overall project; it describes a far right, nostalgic identity project, ‘rural and white, Deep England manages simultaneously to be Medieval, Georgian, Victorian, and interwar—where ruddy-faced yeoman farmers tug their forelocks at the local squire while their wives practice traditional rural crafts to the sound of church bells and the smack of leather on willow.’ This impossibility is not a real England, clearly, but ‘a dream of England’. Watson names J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, Robert Macfarlane’s English Eerie and China Miéville’s bad picturesque, Stephen Prince’s Otherly Pastoralism, and Southwell’s Hookland as examples of it evoked in fiction. It is, however unrealised, an auto-stereotype that wields tremendous prescriptive power.

In my essay, 'Myth, Reaction, Utopia', I explored the idea of the contemporary world (looking mostly at the core Imperial countries and especially the UK and US) as divided by various forms of nostalgic myth struggling against one another. A postwar consensus return to the 50s was placed at the most benign end of this continuum, which also included a centrist delusion of an eternal 90s; the irrationalist myth-making of conspiracists and the outright fascism of new authoritarians. Watson’s art has captured the latter two in the case of England, and rendered it aesthetically intelligible in all its sickliness and contradictions. But he has gone further. In the aforementioned essay, I also attempted to talk about 'a philosophical and humanist mythology' for our moment, and that is also here. A new, future-looking myth-making, however much it is in embryo.

The roots of the reactionary myth Watson has to tackle first are found all over and far back, in the more authoritarian expression of what John Hargrave’s the Kindred and the Kibbo Krift became (that is, in the form of the uniformed Social Credit Party); in the Tory fringe group English Mistery and its explicitly fascist splinter, and so on. Such a legacy can seem overwhelming. Still, it is noteworthy that Watson ends on a note of hope, observing that ‘a change in the way the myth of Deep England is invoked—in art, in literature, in films and television shows—will feed back into society.’ The far right knows this too, so that small cultural signs of inclusion spur them into fury, ‘howls of fear and loss’. It’s a more utopian note on which to conclude the book, recalling ‘The Spirit of Albion, Memory of the Land’ drawing. It suggests something of the renewal of Queen Mab, the May Queen, and Green Man.


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