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‘Home’ by Edmund Clark from Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out and Granta 119: Britain

Each of us gamely hacked away at the stationary ball, trying to will it across the swamp-like quagmire that once resembled a football pitch. Whilst berating my teammate for straying offside and ruining my goal-scoring moment, I heard our coach shouting from the sidelines. Same voice, but very different tone from the pull-your-finger-out-or-you’re-running-laps-after-the-match thundering that we were used to and mostly ignored. This was different. There was an urgency and anxiety I hadn’t heard before. The sheets of rain and my mud-filled ears made what was being said difficult to decipher, but the coach’s gesticulations and the sight of both teams leaving the field made me realize something serious was afoot.

It was a Saturday morning Little League match and the National Front had decided to stage a rally right there on our pitch. Little League, meaning children under the age of twelve and a few overly enthusiastic parents here and there. Not exactly the sort of crowd one might target to communicate an ‘ideology’.

That day brought with it a piercing awareness of another kind of ‘Britain’. Through my tree-climbing, through my strawberry-picking, through my Nintendo-playing, through my youth.

A few years later, I was leaving a basketball tournament in the centre of Birmingham with three teammates boisterous from our achievement, clutching our trophies and looking around for something to fill our empty stomachs. I’d noticed the city centre was more sparsely populated than usual, but declined to mention this to the others. The atmosphere felt strangely ominous, though I couldn’t say why. Turning a corner, we found ourselves face-to-face with an army of about a hundred booze-addled England football fans chaperoned by policemen on horses.

‘Woman Walking’ by Ian Teh from Granta 119: Britain

Minutes later we sat hunched over in a cafe, recovering our breath and steadying our hands as the jolt of fear-induced adrenaline subsided. Peering into my milkshake, I relived the abuse I’d just experienced and wondered at how we could have had lit cigarettes thrown at us? How we can be called ‘nigger’? How we can be so threatened with unprovoked violence? Naivety had long given way to defensiveness by this mid-teen stage of my life, but the shadows of alienation were brought into sharp focus on this particular day in the UK’s second biggest city.

*

Sociological and psychological studies make clear that an individual’s identity can be multiple and fluid, constructed out of experience and coded by linguistics and signifiers. Common sense, one might say, yet we often seek, successfully or not, to pin down our identity as a nation.

Creating the Britain issue of Granta was a task fraught with joys and difficulties. We would be talking about ‘home’. The intangibility and plurality makes one question whether Britain can even be defined as a nation. Are we at a point where such a blanket definition should be challenged?

The journey of the Britain issue reflects these questions. We read thousands of pages, trying find stories that might compel us to look again at the Britain we think we know, and what we found was suitably surprising. In the fiction of the issue Ross Raisin lifts the veil on a football industry lousy with homophobia, Sam Byers and Adam Foulds riff on the numb, listless hedonism of a generation in limbo and Gary Younge delves into the flawed dreams of post-war town planning, specifically in his hometown of Stevenage.

‘Modern Fire Fighting’ by Grace Adam from Granta 119: Britain

I saw the subjects and imagery of the issue as an opportunity to extend the discourse on what Britain is and even what it has the potential to become. I had to walk the tightrope of critique and celebration, always with the aim of initiating a response.

We aim for the cover of each quarterly edition of Granta to be the ignition point for discussion around a theme. I’ve always been of the opinion that a graphic image, whether its purpose is commercial or not, has a responsibility to push beyond the purely aesthetic and acquire a moral and political value, whilst not forgetting a sense of humour.

The association of two long running and respectable but progressive British brands seemed logical, which is why we asked Sir Paul Smith to collaborate. This brings with it an interesting unification of sensibilities. I knew we would be able to produce a concept that celebrated distinctive British characteristics but also posed some questions. The slightly fractured cup does just this. From the lingering influence of Britain’s colonial history, to its currently fraught relationship with Scotland, the ‘chipped cup’ seemed a succinct symbolic statement to kick things off. A way of suggesting that things are not quite as they seem.

The volatile shifting sands of recent British life have been compelling to behold. A time of the new. Bemused by an unprecedented coalition government, many changes in domestic and international policies, questions about Britain’s approach to immigration, a frustrated demographic responding dramatically amidst the heat of last summer. I wondered if the art in the issue could touch on some of the nerve endings that seemed to have been opened up in the nation.

The photography and art section of each issue of Granta responds both to the theme itself and the voices that come from the writing. The magazine has a distinguished legacy of publishing photography and in particular photojournalism, the reigns of which we have taken firmly, adding further conceptual frameworks for both art and photography to live alongside literature.

‘Halcyon Song’ by Justin Coombes from Granta 119: Britain.

Rather than a singular narrative visual essay from an artist, this issue inspired a curatorial experiment. What might British art say about today’s Britain?

With this in mind I invited a number of British creative practitioners across a range of disciplines to submit a single piece of work responding to ‘British Identity’. A somewhat rhetorical exercise on the surface, but it had occurred to me that the frictive energy created from the sum of the parts is relatively uncharted waters. What underlying impressions might we take from the end result?

The result was ‘Home’, a selection of twenty individual works spanning a variety of disciplines, media and practice, forming a kaleidoscopic variety of ideas, thoughts and reflections.

Florence Boyd’s powerful illustration entitled ‘Patrick’ comes from a work in progress which is a portrait of gripping tension and isolation. The extracted text comes from a transcript of her collaborator’s time as a security officer at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre ten years ago. What disturbs me is the parallel between this and literary accounts from across the Atlantic before affirmative action.

Another view offered is of the surprising collective unity that cropped up in the fallout of last summer’s riots, of a kind of togetherness one might only ever see on these shores. This spirit is encapsulated in Claire Shea’s photograph of Peckham’s impromptu peaceful Post-It installation urging peace in the aftermath of rioting and the destruction of local businesses.

Appropriation remains a significant method for a number of works in this collection. So much proliferate imagery is at our fingertips and those that are able to extract, distil and re-present offer us room to pause and contemplate. The debates I was keen to spark burst fully into flame. Take, for example, Mishka Henner’s portraits of ‘alleged’ looters The Gleaners. Here Mishka invites us to challenge the blanket demonization that is so much the fuel of our despotic media sources, but he also manages to provoke our appreciation of what we perceive as artistic statement.

‘The Gleaners’ by Mishka Henner from Granta 119: Britain

During our Granta Britain art Salon at the Hospital Club, Yinka Shonibare offered lucid commentary on his position regarding the identity of Britain. The view of the colonial subject, looking in from the outside, is not only one of repulsion but one also one of admiration for the freedom of a post-empire nation. Admittedly he always wanted to be a part of the very establishment he has spent his entire career critiquing through witty, ironic and vibrant narrative works.

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads’ Yinka Shonibare, MBE from Granta 119: Britain

Curating art for Granta offers a space for experimentation and the juxtaposition of different works and personalities that is unlikely to happen in a gallery. This showcase is very much rooted in the real, albeit the appropriated real. It amplifies the endless contradictions; everything I love and hate about Britain, right down to the solace we derive from urban squalor or pastoral tranquillity. For me, Andrew Testa’s series of photographs shot from his bedroom window on the weekends seems the most apt visual metaphor. Whilst the depictions of the listless decadence of a generation are food for thought, the photographs are also eerily reminiscent of a well known Heironymus Bosch painting over five hundred years old.

‘Muswell Hill’ by Andrew Testa from Granta 119: Britain

It is almost a year after we started the Britain issue, since then there have been riots, the Jubilee commemoration and now the Olympics. Condensed into these twelve months is a tranche of all the character and contradictions that make this place so unique. The grand spectacle of two wonderful weeks of sporting celebration and gaiety, has been uplifting. A wonderful analgesic to the nations anxiety and frustration. Yet I still winced at the barely concealed jingoism inflecting the commentary and still wonder whether the multi-billion pound event that got the world to pay undivided attention will be a catalyst for the development of our social and economic future. Yet when that plane touches down returning from wherever I’ve travelled in the world, after the procession of arrival, I’m thrust into a unique atmosphere and into a terrain where every step is new, anticipating every encounter in The Garden of Earthly Delights. ■

You can buy 119 Granta: Britain here or visit the issue page for further details.

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