National Identity in Julian Barnes' England, England
“The finest tax-deductible minds were brought in to address the Project’s Co-ordinating Committee. The French intellectual was a slight, neat figure in an English tweed jacket half a size too big for him; with it he wore a pale blue button-down shirt of American cotton, an Italian tie of flamboyant restraint, international charcoal wool trousers, and a pair of tasselled French loafers” (54).
Julian Barnes uses his postimperial novel, England, England, to critique what England, under Tony Blair’s administration, is moving towards – a recreated Britain, an all-inclusive nation with no appreciation of its history, except that which has been distorted in order be politically correct or somehow profit the country. Through this quote, it becomes evident that Barnes sees England grasping to be defined, not by its rich past, but by other nations – possible tourists, possible residents that may add diversity and, thus, a shift towards breaking old stereotypes and becoming a modernized nation.
When Sir Jack Pitman, England’s scheming tycoon, recruits the best of the best to assist him in creating his theme park of re-created English history, England, England, he calls in a Frenchman to do the job. Barnes juxtaposes this man’s nationality to the idea of the theme park: a Frenchman is assisting in the development of a project whose end entails complete Englishness. Barnes is showing the ridiculousness of Britain looking toward a new national identity but achieving it by becoming a “melting pot” of nations. Barnes is pointing out that while a nation should embrace all nationalities, it cannot simply erase its history to achieve that. Otherwise, it becomes like the Frenchman – completely ambiguous and non-cohesive.
The irony in this is that in its attempt to re-brand itself, England is attempting to step away from the stereotypes other nations hold of it, one being its long history of prudishness and showing off, yet one of its motives in this re-branding is merely to step back into the limelight. Any Englishman would laugh at Sir Jack’s plan to make English history an exhibition, but Barnes is subtly pointing out that Tony Blair’s administration is moving towards the same end. While it may be a good thing for Blair to move England away from its role as the “double-decker bus, red phone booth” society that most view it as, he still wants Britain to become an exhibition, just of a different sort. Sir Jack may be putting twisted British history on display, but perhaps Blair is displaying a false national identity. Both of these presentations are artificial and with them, the same intent: to capitalize on only what is beneficial in recreating Britain, leaving the rest to fade away.
It is very apparent in the novel that the success of England, England relies solely on tourists. Barnes is saying that the Britain that Blair is moving towards would rely...