The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg

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The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: What starts as a quest for a more inclusive definition of patriotism, ends as a plea for freedom to choose our own identity. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, it will probably appeal more to fans of Bragg's songs than to his political comrades.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552772426

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I don't want to change the world, I'm not looking for a new England. I'm just looking for another girl.

Just one example of Billy Bragg's way with a lyric, effortlessly and movingly weaving the personal and political - to the point where the two are indistinguishable.

Billy's first book attempts a similar synthesis. But, as Bragg himself concludes, writing a book is very different from writing a song. And this time, Billy does want to change the world. You could say he's looking for a new England too.

His aim, reflected in the book's subtitle ( A Search for Belonging) was to separate his love for England from the generally negative connotations of patriotism. For him, coming from the left of politics, this meant its association with unthinking, bellicose and often extreme right-wing views. He wanted to find a patriotism not based on blind loyalty to his country. The book would identify, he hoped, a narrative which explains how we all came to be together in this place.

But does he succeed? On a personal level, He certainly does. He is honest and engaging in his quest for his roots, both political and musical. The former are inextricably linked with his birthplace, Barking in Essex, where generations of his family had lived in the same house.

His musical personality is born with an epiphanic discovery of Simon and Garfunkel at the age of 12, and blossoms with the advent of The Clash six years later. The book is partly, he admits, an attempt to reconcile these disparate traditions. This is fascinating stuff for those who know his songs. He does not over-emphasise the point, but it is clear that the complex inter-relationships of musical influence mirror the equally tangled roots of his racial and political heritage.

The book is at its best when it reconstructs the struggles of his ancestors in the 19th century docks, or as fire wardens in the second world war. Although he turns out to have Italian blood, this seems almost incidental to his own identity. For Billy, the war was the equivalent of an immigrant's home country. It was equally formative in the development of modern Britain. The Beveridge Report, which followed the war ,formed the basis of the modern welfare state. This was as important, says Bragg, as the Bill of Rights or other hard-won freedoms from oppression. Such landmarks in history are part of our collective identity, he suggests.

Some of the schoolbook history lessons which he deploys in support of this argument do resemble the tedious litanies of kings and queens which he says meant so little to him in the classroom. He could have made more of the potential of the current family history boom, of which his search is part. Most supposedly English family trees reveal immigrant blood within a few generations, immediately weakening the claims of the likes of the BNP to represent an indigenous racially-pure Englishness.

Given such truths, and the ability of many to ignore them, it emerges that identity is largely a matter of personal choice. He quotes a friend towards the end of the book: Paul, a black Londoner, doesn't mind being called that, or a citizen of the EU, but he chooses not to see himself as English. That, says Billy, is his right. The problems come when someone else tries to define who you are.

Billy Bragg comes across as a nice guy and a genuinely admirable person. He's maybe not made a wholly convincing case for patriotism, however broadly defined. It remains, in my view, like any form of pride: the thin end of a potentially nasty wedge. He has, though, produced a credible summary of what made him the person he is, and what history and geography can mean to the individual. If he hasn't managed to wrest patriotism from the clutches of the BNP, it's more a problem with patriotism itself than with his skill as an polemicist.

The book is definitely worth reading if you're a fan of Billy Bragg the musician or the campaigner. Its development of the themes of his songs will enrich future listening. And even if Billy's interpretation of identity differs from your own, he provides - in these days of identity cards and immigration scares - a thoughtful contribution to an important current debate.

Another book which examines some of the themes of post-war British politics touched on by Billy Bragg is Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties, by Peter Hennessy

Buy The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

The problem with purely subjective self-definition is that if we take it to an extreme there is nothing that would prevent me from calling myslef black, or - to make it less extreme and more plausible, Asian (as I am likely to have some ancestors from beyond Urals). Or something.

It reminds me of an American I think concept used in positive discrimination: 'visibly ethnic' (ie based on looks) which is currently heavily contested by Eastern Europeans in favour of 'discernibly ethnic' (ie based presumably on accent).

On the other hand in the times of Southern segregation, people with something like 1/16 black lineage (that is one great-great-grandparent) were classified as black, despite often looking very 'white', and one shudders to remember hunting for 'Jewish blood' in the Nazi period.

Kerry said:

Magda, I completely agree with your comment about subjective self-definition. I'm probably really an Eastern European princess or the bloodline of a long cast-out Tsarina. No one knew who my great grandfather was. It sparks an interesting and almost entirely irrelevant debate. I enjoyed Paul's review (I invariably do) however, the whole descrimination thing leaves such a nasty taste not just in my mouth but in my imagination as well. Regretfully, the BNP is alive and well and thriving in Essex (where I live). It makes me feel physically sick to know these neo-fascists exist and when they come campaigning at my door, my husband generally answers them from behind the stock of a large air rifle.