The following is a review of The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging, by Billy Bragg, published in 2006 by Bantam of London.
This is really three books in one. The first is an autobiography of Billy Bragg, the singer and songwriter who took the blues and the music of the American folk revival and made them into something distinctively English. The second is a history of his native Barking. And the third articulates an inclusive, forward-looking vision of English patriotism far removed from the puce-faced xenophobia of UKIP and the Daily Mail. The way Bragg switches somewhat awkwardly between the three can be a little frustrating at times, but there can be little doubt that he sees them as intrinsically linked.
“I’m Billy Bragg and I’m from Barking in Essex”. These are the words with which Bragg closes every concert, and as he explains here, they amount to a mini-manifesto of sorts. Of course, Bragg now lives in Dorset, and we West Saxons might feel a little put out that he doesn’t show his adopted homeland more love. But this misses the point. The statement is his way of saying “I am from somewhere, I have roots”. It is a calculated rebuke to the rootlessness that permeates American rock ‘n’ roll in particular, with its recurring imagery of open-topped Cadillacs cruising along endless highways. Bragg brought the epitome of this trope, Route 66, closer to home by turning it into A13: Trunk Road to the Sea, in which the highway from Santa Monica to Chicago has been replaced with the road from London to Shoeburyness. His patriotism manifests itself in his unapologetic belief that he has not devalued the song in any way by doing so.
Barking is effectively the key to the whole book. It is the environment that nurtured Bragg, and he treats it as a microcosm of England as a whole. As a town whose history revolves around boat-building and fishing, it has long welcomed visitors from many parts of the world, and this informs Bragg’s desire to affirm a patriotism that looks outward rather than inward. Like the Wessex Regionalists, he is informed by an English radical tradition that includes Levellers and Chartists, Ned Ludd and Captain Swing. He presents this history well, and whilst I suspect that this book won’t tell most readers of this blog anything they don’t already know, I am glad that it exists. When Michael Gove was Education Secretary, one of his aims was to rewrite the school curriculum in order to put the “tory” back into “history”. Though Gove is no longer responsible for education, this may yet lead to a generation that will never get to learn English radical history in any other way. It once again falls to the bards and minstrels to teach people the truths that they won’t hear at school.