Living better

Our culture and identity

In what the Daily Telegraph ‘Eric Pickles wants to reclaim historic county names’, Daily Telegraph 23 April 2013 called a ‘symbolic gesture to celebrate St George’s Day’, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said he wanted to recognise the old names of former counties such as Cumberland, Huntingdonshire and Westmorland as part of the ‘tapestry of England’. ‘Our local history’, he said, ‘makes us who we are.’

This view sees identity and well-being as inexorably linked, pointing to the importance of our sense of where we belong and how we relate to our cities and countryside. This has been a central theme of national life for at least two centuries, crystallised in the Romantic era, when William Wordsworth expressed passions for his native landscape which have coloured our shared sensibility and led to widespread modern-day support for our National Parks and the National Trust. Jonathan Bate FBA, Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, has shown how these institutions owe their origin in large part to Wordsworth’s influence. See Bate’s pioneering work of literary ‘ecocriticism’, Romantic Ecology, London, 1991

Bate also points to Wordsworth’s contemporary and friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as a valuable guide to well-being. In a collection of essays he edited for the Arts and Humanities Research Council,  J. Bate (ed.), The Public Value of the Humanities, London, 2011he contrasts John Stuart Mill’s essay on the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham – who argued ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation’ – with that on Coleridge, who argued that what we need to do is find the good, the true, the beautiful, the significant, and those are things that cannot be quantified. Bate adds:

‘If we simply followed Bentham it would be football for everybody; if you simply followed Coleridge you might have a rather elitist sense that the people were excluded from high culture. What Mill argued for was some kind of balance between the two.’

That leads back to our starting point: the desire to identify better ways of measuring the full mix of elements that contribute to human happiness and well-being. It also highlights the importance of the emotional and spiritual dimension of culture; the arts and culture, like religious faith, are a source of well-being to millions of people. As the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said recently, ‘A flourishing economy is necessary but not sufficient. A healthy society flourishes and distributes economic resources effectively but also has a deep spiritual base which gives it its virtue.’
Bate is also the biographer of John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet. He describes him as ‘the greatest writer from a humble origin that England has ever seen (Scotland had Burns). He is also our greatest writer about the natural world: flowers, trees, the life of nature.’ Bate’s biography helped inspire the campaign to preserve Clare’s cottage near Peterborough, and facilitate visits there by city children in ways that promoted comparisons between past and present-day cultures. One of the discoveries that proved most fascinating was how greatly this 19th-century poet was interested ‘in environmental fragility and ecological change. He witnessed great changes to the land and landscape around him and was an ecologist and conservationist before his time. The rediscovery of that aspect of his work gave a very interesting literary dimension to the questions of what do we do about environmental crisis that have now come to such public prominence.’

In these ways our greatest artists and writers explore and illuminate, sometimes in unexpected ways, timeless human questions. Equally, the creative arts constantly influence each other and are cross-fertilised by academic research. For instance, a creative collaboration between Jonathan Bate and the actor Simon Callow led to the successful production Being Shakespeare (first performed in 2011): the story of Shakespeare’s life, dramatised through extracts from his plays. Ideas may be generated by a book, in turn inspired by new research, in turn generating new public interest, reinforced in the media. The recent burst of interest in the Tudor politician/statesman Thomas Cromwell was nurtured by new scholarship by academic historians on early 16th-century government, building on but in important respects revising earlier work. This charged the imagination of Hilary Mantel, whose Man Booker prizewinning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) have reawakened a national interest in Cromwell, the king he served, in Henry VIII’s wives and the whole Tudor period – spurring the public to explore Hampton Court and other historic houses, and inspiring other books and television programmes.

There is boundless evidence of this kind of public fascination with the past. When Richard III’s remains were discovered beneath a Leicester car park, the nation (indeed the world) was gripped. When archaeologists discovered letters home from Roman soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall and the letters were translated, there was real excitement at being able to hear these ancient voices; with thousands of people going to the Roman fort at Vindolanda to see where they had come from. And where ‘we’ had come from was a central theme of the dramatic 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, with the writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, drawing heavily on research on British history, culture and the work of the great documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, who in turn drew on a huge legacy of previous scholarship. Though not always immediately visible, a direct line runs from past scholarship to present-day creation.