What is the Heritage of the Lake District?

I greatly enjoyed reading George Monbiot’s critical consideration of the Lake District’s bid for World Heritage Status: http://www.monbiot.com/2013/09/02/obstinate-questionings/
However, I cannot help thinking that further critical reflection and analysis of what ‘Lake District Heritage’ is – or can be – can take us a step further.

While the National Trust, Natural England and English Heritage form a powerful coalition that is seeking to have the region recognised by UNESCO, George Monbiot quite rightly recognises the poverty of many of their headline claims. While describing the Lake District as ‘one of the most depressing landscapes in Europe’, competing with ‘the chemical deserts of East Anglia for the title of Britain’s worse-kept countryside’ might perhaps sound rather shrill, Monbiot’s basic point – that the Lake District represents the epitome of many of the contradictions that lie within the British conservation movement – is well articulated. While there is a pretence of the Lake District as a romantic and ecologically varied place where a harmonious interaction between people and their environment have sustained a democratic and quintessentially ‘national’ landscape, Monbiot points towards the conflict between a monolithic and industrial-scale system of hill farming on the one hand, and the ideal of a thriving ecosystem on the other. Monbiot asks us: “why should Wordsworth and Ruskin govern our tastes beyond the grave? Why should the culture they mythologised be treated as if it were the only current and possible culture?”

I agree with much of what Monbiot says, but it strikes me that in critiquing the present form of the Lake District as ‘wrong’, Monbiot implies that there is some sort of ‘authentic’ landscape out there, which requires our ‘protection’, if only we realised it. Taking a more processual viewpoint on heritage can shift our attention away from any presumption of there being an authentic and original ‘landscape-out-there’, and points us toward the notion of ‘Lake District heritage’ as an on-going and open-ended achievement. As ugly (or as beautiful) as the Lake District is, it is actually quite a good example of where a constructed sense of the past is actively used in the present to suggest an imagined sense of destiny for the future. This is something to be purposefully engaged with, not something to preserve (or not). Monbiot quite rightly points us towards taking a critical standpoint that seeks to unpick some of the power relations that are actively in operation within the Lake District – for instance, see the work of Divya Tolia-Kelly and Mike Crang (‘Nation, race, and affect: senses and sensibilities at national heritage sites’, Environment and Planning A, 2010). Rather than simply castigate the Lake District’s claims to ‘world heritage’, therefore, we should critically engage with what the heritage of the Lake District is – and what it can be.

The Official Deployment (and Public Perception) of War Rhetoric

In this world of 24 hour news, hyper-real video games and largely uncensored proliferation of Youtube clips, it can sometimes seem that news and events cease to shock as they once supposedly did. In recent weeks, however, the eye-witness accounts and amateur film footage coming out of Syria, of ordinary people – including many women and children – suffering and dying due to the effects of chemical weapons, reminds us just how shocking the world can be. It is not surprising that these events have sparked a global flurry of comment and debate both in terms of popular and everyday ‘talk’ amongst friends and colleagues, as well as at governmental levels, as reported in the global media. While appalled at the images – and much of the ensuing debate – I also find it instructive to reflect further on the heritage of much of this public comment.

Much of the initial commentary connected the attacks in Damascus to a speech made by US President Barack Obama, almost exactly a year ago in August 2012, when he seemed to suggest that the use of chemical weapons would represent the ‘crossing of a red line’. This resulted in strong pressure for the US and its allies to make a military intervention in Syria, and a heated debate that is still developing. What Barack Obama actually said last year does not seem to be as straightforward as the rhetorical use of it today would seem: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/08/president-obamas-red-line-what-he-actually-said-about-syria-and-chemical-weapons/

Whatever he did or did not say, however, the deployment of the idea of ‘crossing a red line’ seems to have an affective capacity today. Indeed, along with the repeated – and slightly nostalgic – use of the term ‘allies’, and the even more provocative referral to a ‘Munich moment’ by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, it all seems to correspond to an affective assemblage of war rhetoric folk heritage: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/john-kerry-to-democrats-munich-moment-96165.html

Where does the idea of crossing the red line come from? It seems to me to be a purposeful invocation towards a mix of a line in the sand, and a thin red line, both of which have a heritage that seems apposite at this time. The ‘thin red line’ makes a link to the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854, when the 93rd Highland Regiment (and their Turkish allies) held off a Russian cavalry charge. Although it is usually deployed in a fashion that seeks to make a Briton proud of its armed forces, Wikipedia suggests that to the British press of the 1850s it became an icon of the quality of the ordinary soldier in a war that was poorly managed and increasingly unpopular: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thin_Red_Line_%28Battle_of_Balaclava%29

In other words, the thin red line is resonant of popular critique of official military incompetence and a warning to those that seek to make political capital from posturing military pronouncements that may cost the lives of thousands of people.

The notion of a line in the sand appears to be more ubiquitous and has less of an imperial overtone. It seems to appeal to Biblical sensibilities, with Jesus drawing a line in the sand when speaking to people who were accusing a woman of adultery. The ensuing speech by Jesus is perhaps quite apt when considering the use of military intervention in Syria: “He who is without sin amongst you, let him throw a stone at her first”.

While the debate in the US Congress is still far from complete, within the UK Parliament last week it was a different heritage that seemed to resonate more loudly. Here, it was a folk memory of ‘dodgy dossiers’ and the memory of the Iraq War that over-ruled an Executive desire for military intervention. The people voting might be MPs and politicians, but the sentiment was very much more the offspring of popular protest and demonstration a decade ago. Along with millions of others, I had been angry that my voice had seemingly not been herd when I marched in London on the 15th February 2003, and yet now I find that a key element of UK Foreign Policy is being driven not by the Executive, nor even Parliament, but by the affective and emotive power of the folk memory of war rhetoric.