29 December 2010

Geoffrey Grigson’s Definition of SW England

2011 will be the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. Although now thought of as an exhibition on London’s South Bank which left us the Royal Festival Hall, it sponsored various other good works, one being a series of regional guidebooks. The About Britain Guides were published by Collins for the Festival Office in 13 volumes under the general editorship of Geoffrey Grigson, who also wrote the Portrait sections of Volumes 1, West Country and 2, Wessex.

In the 1930s Grigson had become an established poet, well-known in intellectual circles. He is one of the many writers and artists who Alexandra Harris, in Romantic Moderns, sees as coming to terms with Modernist abstraction by using it to reinterpret traditional English themes such as landscape. Her book is remarkably wide-ranging and informative, essential reading for anyone interested in twentieth century British art. Britain’s pavilion for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair by Oliver Hill embodies her theme (page 47-9):
"... as one approached it, the epitome of elegant concrete constructivism ... Then there was the inside. The ‘idea of England’ promoted in a series of displays ... was one of fishing, tennis and weekend cottages. ... This was a pavilion with mixed messages, advertising internationalism on the outside and Englishness within. ... it was a high-profile barometer of the difficulties involved in the attempt to reconcile international modernism with the language of national tradition."
Fourteen years and a world war later, much of this would be true again of the Festival of Britain, with its “contemporary” pavilions and domes and the Skylon on the one hand, and an eccentric mock-Victorian railway in Battersea Park on the other. As a later critic put it, “The contemporary style removed the visionary heat of Modernism from the exhibition, and replaced it with a cajoling warmth” (Robert Gregory, Architectural Review, 2000).

The Skylon, said to be, like the British economy in 1951, "without visible means of support"

To a reader today, Grigson’s depiction of the West Country seems very much of its time, although he avoided retrospective sentimentality in bringing the region’s history and its 1951 present together. Much of the business and manufacturing of the 1950s now seem almost as remote as the mining and cloth trades of the 18th century. The cover and dust jacket of each volume of The About Britain Guides provided a map of its region. As can be seen below, Grigson, by comparison with the SW England region used currently by the government (see this blog’s Profile above), chose to define West Country as being without the counties of Dorset and SE Wiltshire, both of which he placed in Wessex along with the Isle of Wight.

More recently, a government-sponsored website, ICONS - A Portrait of England, came up with a set of 11 English regions (including London) for its purpose, not dissimilar to Grigson’s, of being “a rich resource of material about our lives and cultural heritage comprised of the top 100 icons that best represent England ...”. ICONS excluded all of Wiltshire from its definition of the West Country and also excluded Gloucestershire. The county of Avon had a brief life from 1974 to 1996 when it was returned to its neighbours and Bristol.

Personally, I’m not sure where the West Country ends as one travels east in England, which is a small place in which to draw boundaries. On the whole I agree with Grigson, but some of West Dorset should probably be inside. I share ICONS’ reservations about Gloucestershire which, to me, consists of three distinct parts: the Forest of Dean, which is like nowhere else; secondly, the Cotswolds, which continue seamlessly into Oxfordshire; finally, Gloucester and Cheltenham (cities of the Severn plain) and the upper Severn valley, all going better with landlocked Worcestershire and the West Midlands than with maritime Devon and Cornwall.  It seems odd of ICONS to include the whole of Wiltshire and none of Dorset.


The Festival of Britain was open from May to September 1951. Any lasting effect, apart from its concert hall, was rapidly dissipated after the return of a Conservative government in October 1951. David Kynaston, in Family Britain, 1951-57, makes no bones about it: “... the Tory restoration – a restoration whose most obviously symbolic early action was the systematic, undeniably vengeful demolition of the entire Festival of Britain infrastructure on the South Bank, with the unavoidable exception of the Royal Festival Hall.” Another British historian of the period, Peter Hennessy (now Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield - in the County of Gloucestershire) takes a drier view in Never Again: Britain 1945-51, pointing out that “It was Herbert Morrison’s show. He picked up the idea and ran with it, selling it to the [Labour] Cabinet on the grounds that we ought to do something jolly ...”. Morrison (Foreign Secretary) would have been well aware that with a majority of only five seats after the 1950 election, Labour would be unlikely to last a full term and needed to court popularity.

Grigson continued to write poetry and about travel and the countryside. He died in 1985 at the age of 80. His third wife, Jane, was a well-known cookery writer as is their daughter, Sophie. In 2009 she wrote a tribute to her father in The Times when his guide to the British countryside, The Shell Country Alphabet, was republished.

ICONS seems to have been subsumed by Culture24 which “exists to promote and support the cultural sector online and to serve the needs of online audiences. We are a not-for-profit online publisher, working across the arts, heritage, education, and tourism sectors.” Culture24 was funded by the Arts Council, Department for Education and MLA Renaissance. The last of these, more prosaically the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, was abolished by the Coalition government in July 2010, and Culture24’s future must be doubtful, given the severity of recent funding cuts for public bodies.

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