Friday 14 December 2018

The Dances of Albion

I wait; asleep or awake, I wait. Novalis says, 'Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.'

George MacDonald, Lilith


One of the recurring themes in Archpriest Andrew Phillips' pugnacious blog is a radical restructuring of what we now call Great Britain or the United Kingdom. Fr. Phillips foresees a time when all four realms - England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - will play a role that is right and proper for them in the ordering of national life. No one realm will dominate; none will feel forced to bend the knee. A natural pattern and harmony will unfold, more akin to the curves, swirls and imagistic beauty of the Book of Kells than the static, one-dimensional form of governance we currently endure.

The Palace of Westminster, in Fr. Phillips' vision will become the new and long-awaited English Parliament, with central government relocated to the Isle of Man - within sight, as it were, of all four realms. GB/UK will join USSR, GDR, and other outdated acronyms in the dustbin of history, while the new polity will bear the far more resonant title of The Islands of the Northern Seas.

This scenario may or may not come to pass, but it strikes me as indicative of the way our sense of national identity, which until recently seemed so solid, is starting to shift beneath our feet. It was never, I suppose, quite so sturdy as it appeared, but that was certainly how it felt to me growing up in the 1970s and '80s. Despite the Troubles in Northern Ireland and no end of political and social strife, there never seemed any danger of the U.K falling apart or ceasing to exist. It felt far too stable and deep-rooted for that.

Was it all an illusion? It's difficult to say, but it's certainly becoming clearer as the years go by, to my mind at least, just what a recent notion 'Great Britain' is. GB took shape in the Early Modern era and reached its zenith in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is losing its imaginative force now, as older patterns, harking back to the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon layers of our history, begin to reappear. Scotland, for instance, already has one foot out of the Union. In Wales, where I currently live, the Welsh language is blossoming, while a distinctly English political and cultural consciousness - though still raw and far from fully-formed - is undeniably taking shape. Localism is attracting the hearts and minds of many. People, in my view, are becoming increasingly aware of what is unique and precious about their particular locality. We are living, as Blue Labour's Maurice Glasman has noted, in a time of interregnum. Established ways no longer compel our attention, while new, emerging patterns are still in a fluid, somewhat unpredictable state. They have yet to take on fixed and solid form.

This is exactly the terrain that John Milbank explores in his third volume of poetry, The Dances of Albion (Shearsman Books, 2015). Milbank is also a theologian and political theorist, best known perhaps for his leading role in the Radical Orthodoxy movement in Anglicanism, which aims to show (much as the Inklings did in the imaginative sphere) that creedal orthodoxy is at one far more exacting, far more exciting, and far more fulfilling than supposedly more palatable liberal alternatives.

Milbank, generally speaking, is economically left-wing and socially conservative. As such, he has become one of Blue Labour's most authoritative and distinctive intellectual voices. He differs from Glasman, however, in that he strongly believes that Britain's future lies within the European Union. His wants Britain to work alongside countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic (together with like-minded individuals and groups elsewhere) to reform the EU from within and steer it in a post-liberal direction. He has gone so far (on his always-stimulating Twitter page) to cite the Holy Roman Empire as the ideal model for a reformed and restructured EU. So he certainly cannot be accused of political correctness in his support for Remain or of acting as a mouthpiece for fashionable, metropolitan opinion!


John Milbank has a broad and rich historical imagination. This gives his political thought depth and perspective and helps him frame current events in fresh and imaginative ways. He sees things in wholes rather than parts. He has said, for example, that the real issue in the Brexit debate is not the simple binary question of 'in' or 'out', but rather the nature of the relationship we wish to have with the countries physically closest to us. This isn't an avoidance of what's at stake or a piece of academic obscurantism. It's an approach which goes to the heart of the matter and a question with a lengthy pedigree, going all the way back to the usurper, Carausius, who removed Britain from direct Roman rule for a spell in the late third century.

Are we even in a position to answer such a question wisely, however? To understand the type of relationship we want with our European neighbours, surely we need to understand the types of relationship we currently have and would like to have in the future with the different races, traditions and heritages active in our own land. It would be good to feel able to fully interact with the multi-layered historical strata which our national story bears witness to. But an engagement with our past in all its fullness - Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman, and more - has not been encouraged in recent centuries as much as it might have been. Since the execution of Charles I and the so-called Glorious Revolution, a Whiggish reading of what Britain is about has come to dominate the intellectual and cultural agenda. This interpretation champions everything rational, quantifiable, measurable and tangible. It has no room for Romance and regards what is invisible as inherently unreal. This is why William Blake railed against it so heartily and why his imaginatively-charged critique of late eighteenth-century mores remains bitingly relevant today. The same narrowing of vision, the same expulsion of the spirit, the same mercantilism and materialism, allied now to an ever more intrusive, ever more tech-heavy bureaucratic machine, still appears to set the tone. It was during Blake's lifetime that Napoleon called the English 'a nation of shopkeepers', and he was right to do so. But that was only what England had become. It was not and is not who the English really are. Not deep down. Not in their essence. And nor is it who they may one day become.

Appearances can be deceptive though. Just as the UK no longer feels as constitutionally solid as in the past, so too is this Whig construction of national identity starting to unravel. Something older and more archaic is rising to take its place, something wild and primeval, more in tune with the timeless, archetypal world of myth and legend than the 'facts and figures' ambience of secular modernity. It could, of course, be something dreadful - Yeats's infamous 'rough beast', his awful hour come round at last. Or, alternatively, it might be something altogether more positive, something which, as Wayne Sturgeon suggests in Albion Awake (Black Front Press, 2015):

 " ... looks both backwards and forwards at the same time in anticipation of realising the 'Ancient Future'; this 'ancient future' being an attempt at a synthesis of religion and social life akin to a radical traditionalist sacred order that allows for dynamic innovation but which is essentially timeless and changeless in its stability, unlike the dynamic of modernity that is constantly striving to change humanity and the world but from a materialist viewpoint." (pp.133-134.)

This is how the societal change we are beginning to feel might develop in a constructive direction. And this, I think, is what Milbank means on the back cover of The Dances of Albion, when he says that it was 'written in the hope of a true unity of Britain yet to come.' What is in play is a kind of archaeo-futurism, where we draw sustenance and inspiration from the many levels of our pre-modern past, which has been unfairly marginalised by the dominant materialist paradigm. The aim of this reconnection, this return to our source, is not to retreat from the difficulties of twenty-first century life, but to forge a different way of seeing and being in the world, where the past and future join hands, where the circle is made whole, and the sacred restored to its rightful place at the centre of human consciousness. There will be no more alienation then. No more atomisation and fragmentation. We will start to feel at home again - at home in our environment, at home in our bodies and minds, at home in our families, in our towns and cities, and at home with the Divine.

This 'New Jerusalem', unfortunately, will feel a long way off to many at the moment. The Wasteland is still very much with us. As Milbank writes in the collection's longest poem, The Pembrokeshire Cosmology:

Walking to the post-box
over the iron plateau,
I survey the reduction of culture
to its essence of prophecy.
The closed shops, meagre produce,
cold façades
and slurry-dumps at the edge of villages.
A comfortless succumbing to ressentiment
and mad hopes for a reconquered Britain.

At the opposite pole lies transfiguration, 'a dream to future times', as Milbank puts it in Dalriada:

Yet she came,

And we brightened in her presence
like a rock
before the suddenly beams of the sun
when they issue from a barren cloud
divided by the roaring wind.


So how do we get from here to there? What lies in between? This extract below, I think - a vision and understanding - a manifesto, if you like - of what British life can be and should be and will be again and in some ways always has been. It has been suppressed - beaten down by the impoverished worldview, which has, for nigh-on four hundred years, banished the holy from our lives and squashed our spiritual and imaginative horizons into a tiny evidence-based box. But it will come again. It is already on the move. But it is wild and dangerous - like the 'Old Magic' in Alan Garner's Moon of Gomrath. It needs channelling and careful, reverent handling, and this is exactly what Milbank does here. Like David Jones in The Anathemata and The Sleeping Lord, and Geoffrey Hill in Mercian Hymns, he presents a mythic picture, which all the ancient peoples of this isle will resonate with as it speaks to the soul of Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman alike. It is pitched at the correct level - the pre-political level - and written in the right register to transcend the petty divisions and limited horizons which often make us less than what God created us to be. Newcomers to Britain, I also imagine, would be far more likely to be impressed by something like this than what is currently offered them in the 'Life in the UK' course. Because, as we have seen, there is much more to the Island of the Mighty than the initials UK or GB. Those letters represent a phase in our history, which is passing now. This extract from The Pembrokeshire Cosmology, on the other hand, speaks of our realm in its eternal aspect:

When there stood Troy-Town,
the original labyrinth;
an exact model
of the entire stellar universe

whence came the new line.
Bringers of life from the dawning sun
like the gypsy-girl
with her red scarf and dangling earrings
whom we sometimes encounter -
so dark, moon-kissed and gaudy
down the damp, pale, western lane,

bringing longing to us from where
we long not to go,
one of Diana's crew: she came
with lingering Brutus.
He who engraved an altar in new Troy,
slew the last giant
and hurled the dragon downwards,

before he dictated
that the eldest son should rule
under the Pendragon,
for the time being,

always, secretly to instil
the usages of Britain:
that a wife, children
and instruments of his calling
might belong to a man.

That Queens may rule
to greater victory.

That the forest,
unworked mine and
hunted creatures
are common to all.

That the child, old
and family instructor
are exempted from all work.

Nor are these weapons against these.

While there is equality of rights
and equity of taxation.

With a mixed government
at once regal and popular.
Without both,
then never to be either
in New Troy of the oak groves,
ringed summits
and branching temples

in all the local sites,
dispersed to yet more centres.
Some places are more than others
and without this priority
there would be neither order nor beauty.


If there is one action I would encourage us to take after reading this piece (apart from buying a copy of The Dances of Albion, of course) it would be to watch this 34 minute video of John Milbank talking in Moscow about how the new dividing line in theology is not so much between liberals and conservatives as in the 1960s and '70s, but between what he calls rationalists and romantics. Milbank is unashamedly romantic in his approach. So too, I believe, are the writers and readers of Albion Awakening. So, with this in mind, in my next (and final) piece for this blog, I want to write a fictional meditation on what the coming fall of Britain and the emergence of this new paradigm might look like.

Because the imagination matters more than ever now. Towards the end of his talk, Milbank praises the Inklings for stealing a march on the twentieth-century theologians by realising that the key to a Christian renaissance in our times lies not in the rational intellect but in the imagination. This, it should be added, is by no means to disdain reason, but rather to seek beyond it. It is not sub-rational, but supra-rational. The whole mythopoeic world of Narnia, for instance, sprang from an image in C.S. Lewis's head of a lamp-post in a wood in winter. It is the image - the picture, the representation - which comes first, then its manifestation in the world, and this applies to the political and social spheres as much as the religious and artistic. It is our task today, I believe, to reconnect with the deepest sources of our being - both as individuals and as a nation - and to cultivate the inner stillness and prayerful waiting on God we will need if we are to skilfully direct the images surging through at this time. The maverick English Platonist, John Michell, claimed as long ago as the 1970s that we are living in an age of revelations. The Dances of Albion gives those revelations what they (and we) need most of all - a sense of place and a local shape and form:

Yet for a place to be a place at all
it must constitute a centre.
Otherwise the detailed and lesser
would be merely the random.

Everywhere disperses to new,
absolute and unique dispositions.
The whole island is
but one great place and centre.
It is as the One,
                       Being, Intellect
manifest equally everywhere,
the entire also in the lesser places
and the minor saints.

The island, like Goodness,
is dispersed throughout itself
and overflowing beyond
its elusive circumference.

The Pembrokeshire Cosmology

John Milbank