In November 1998, the British Council organized its "New Writing from Britain" Festival in Berlin. In one of the combined readings and discussions the novelist and literary critic Malcom Bradbury described the current state of British fiction as one of immense diversity, both in terms of genres, forms, styles and subject-matter and in terms of its international standing and multicultural variety. This diversity goes beyond the simple choice between traditionalist and postmodernist modes of writing - possible choices that had been described, and possibly also been constructed, for British novelists by literary critics like David Lodge and Bradbury himself during the 1970s and 1980s.
One of the other writers present, Nicholas Shakespeare, questioned Bradbury's observation, or, at least, put it in a different perspective, by mentioning that at a similar event only a few years previous in Canada, a tendency towards isolation and insularity in British fiction -- in comparison with international developments -- was commented upon.
Apart from illustrating the general difficulties of assessing very recent developments this interchange serves to highlight conflicting tendencies in contemporary British culture . While in the 70s and 80s literature and literary theory displayed a marked postmodernist preference for pluralism and relativism, for the deconstruction of master narratives and traditional humanist values, in the 1990s this stance has come to be modified or even rejected in various ways.
As postmodern theory has gradually begun to be regarded as having reached a dead end, there have been calls for a qualified and progressive humanism as a possible basis "for the development of principled positions which might inform political action" (Judith Squires, 1993, 2-3). The question of values has been re-introduced into cultural discourse, and the need to theorize and criticize this concept has been emphasized, since the praxis of deconstruction did not exile values from interpretation but merely drove them "into the critical subconscious", as Steven Connor observes in Theory and Cultural Value (1992, 14).
A recent collection of essays on British Literature and Culture in the 1990s demonstrates this development, and indicates the conflicting tendencies I wish to look at in Graham Swift's latest novel, Last Orders (1996).
The essay collection, and the symposium from which it emerged, is suggestively and tentatively entitled Unity in Diversity Revisited? , referring back to the two key terms T. S. Eliot used in his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948). The celebration of and preference for variety, diversity or difference during the last two decades has left obvious marks in recent British culture. At the same time, as it is argued here, unity has not lost its significance in cultural reflection -- even if it has been neglected or has been expressed in a negative way, as an unattainable desire for wholeness. The essays suggest and enact a tendency in the 1990s of "using postmodern insights for more constructive rather than de(con)structive purposes" and offer a possible synthesis of the two conflicting approaches in a "paradoxical complementarity of unity and diversity" (Korte Müller, 1998, pp. 9, 15).
I want to look at two aspects of Graham Swift's Last Orders where the paradoxical combination of these forces is expressed. I shall describe the uses of history in his writing, in which nostalgia and escapism are placed against existential self-awareness and contemporaneity, and I shall focus on the concern with places, region, and "Englishness", in which insularity and concepts of national identity are questioned through the contradictory and inflational use of ritual and cliché.
Korte, Barbara, Klaus Peter M¸ller (Eds.): Unity in Diversity Revisited. British Literature and Culture in the 1990s. Tübingen 1998
Poole, Adrian: "Hurry up please, it's time", Guardian Weekly, 28-1-96, p. 29.
Squires, Judith (Ed.): Principled Positions. Postmodernism and the Rediscovery of Value. London 1993