‘This earth, this realm, this England’

England in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

I’ve done some strange things, the last few days, as the Shakespeare-title may suggest. Watched youtubes of Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, listened to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ and thought a lot about the looting, slashing and burning England has managed to perpetrate across much of the world. But like the Romans who once conquered them, the Queen’s Empire has shrunk to so many ruins and remembrances, and a lasting legacy of post-colonial damage. Maybe it’s because I was born in Liverpool (though my family emigrated before I was three) and because much of my heritage-family is there, or because my sister is in London as I write, that the UK/London riots feel so close to home and full of grief.

Human beings love a story. We want an ‘explanation’. Capitalism; criminality; disaffection; Thatcherism meets the global financial crisis; materialism; bad parents (the good old ‘broken family’ theory: no doubt every child out there looting is the result of a single mother).

Despite the flood of internet-news in shades of grey, the mainstream media only seem to want the story that shores up the crumbling edifice of protest-is-criminality, demonising the young and poor. I’ve met plenty of nasty, scary dickheads with more testosterone than compassion (just hang around at Ringwood/Croydon/Lilydale station or throw a party in the Upper Yarra Valley for your teenager) but, like the gone-wild English kids wrecking the lives and homes of people in their own communities, they are a creation of a punitive social system and media that despite the best efforts of teachers and counsellors says: you are only a body, your soul and spirit are worthless; your use and worth is only as much as your service-of-labour to the economy and the state; you should aspire to material wealth and live happily only on its promise but the rewards of materialism are not for you; you are nothing and no one unless you have employment and money but there is no job for you.

It seems clear that the English police (more successfully integrated, perhaps, but nevertheless victims of the same system) have taken this punitive attitude (neatly combined with insidious racism, helped along by disturbing news of racism in the local citizenry) to new levels and are now reaping the rewards of their labours. And those Plods with heart and good purpose are swept into the affray. How many police running up the road to attack teenagers, wonder ‘how did I get here?’ and wish themselves a million miles away. Now they’re talking about bringing in the army – in the old days, they called that civil war.

I agree that it is foolish to imagine the UK unrest to be ‘apolitical’. It’s the story that tells us these are human beings in crisis, longing for leadership that can harness and guide their humanity and worth, is the story that makes the most sense to me and holds all the other stories in it – a story that sings its beauty and violence ever more loudly across the globe. How long can the moneyed classes ignore the story of righteous insurrection writ large in fire and blood across their nations? It’s time for governments and corporate leaders to know that ‘justice will be done’ and to ‘see the consequences of their actions’ – it’s time to change the response from ‘how can we punish you’ to ‘how can we help repair the damage we’ve done’ – Oh, that such leadership would rise from the Left: then England really could lead the way in hope and glory.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays