A New Age of Anxiety

‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.’

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, 1922

Essay by: Morgan Haigh, Art Historian

Written for "Winds of Change", published by Kozu Books and Samuel Fradley, 2022

These words were written a century ago in a poem whose themes of dislocation, desolation, decay, and depression have become ever present parts of our lives in the intervening years. Eliot was writing in and about a Britain which in living memory had passed from the assured and insurmountable confidence of its imperial height, through the cataclysmic battles and deprivations of the First World War, and a global pandemic which killed fifty million. His pessimism and confusion, conveyed powerfully in the simple lines above, is entirely understandable, as is the often dream-like and mythical tone of other passages in The Wasteland, moments of thwarted escape into fiction and nostalgia that bring such poignancy to Eliot’s vision.

In 2022, looking back to the first half of the twentieth century with rose-tinted lenses seems to have become something of a national pastime. Regardless of how Eliot saw the world around him, we are confidently told that years from the turn of the century to the end of the Second World War are the exemplar of when Britain was ‘Top Nation’. Our Empire, built over generations and expanded ‘wider still and wider’ by the Victorians, gave us claim to being the global superpower, our Navy was the largest going, and our politics was sensible, wise, and filled by statesmen of unrivalled skill. Pax Britannica, world policeman, the Empire on which the sun never set, these clichés are so well known they roll off the tongue. When, in June 2022, Elizabeth II celebrated 70 years on the throne, one could not move for Spitfires and Dame Vera Lynn despite the war ending seven years before her accession. It would seem the foundation of British identity in the 21st century relies on this mythic vision of England (and it is very particularly ‘England’, Welsh, Scotts, and Irish being homogenised into this identity), and yet there are very few alive today who clearly remember this ‘golden age’ and even fewer ways in which it has any relevance to our modern society. Instead, Britain is smaller, poorer, less united, and less powerful than possibly anytime in the last three centuries.

The photography of Samuel Fradley documents this oxymoron at the heart of contemporary society in the UK. Sometimes explicitly encountered, and at other times implicitly present, his images deal with the reality of a small island nation on the edge of Europe, both geographically and politically, at a time of enormous social and economic upheaval. A country that, despite (or possibly in spite of) reality, believes itself to be a major global player with a proud history of being the ‘liberator of Europe’ and the imperial power par excellence. The effects are sometimes comic, sometimes faintly tragic, but always imbued with a sense of loss, doubt, and anxiety as to the future. Similar feelings were expressed by some of the great poets of the interwar years, Eliot we have already encountered, and both WB Yeats and WH Auden found words for the almost inexpressible tensions that thronged the air of the 1920s and 30s. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and “Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade” are lines which resonate strongly with us today as we live through our own ‘age of anxiety’. For us, as for them, the far right is on the rise across the globe, with populist figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen and others sowing division and creating societies defined by their differences. The writers and artists of the interwar years had also come through a global pandemic and economic crisis and could sense that a breaking point was on the horizon, they did not know then that six years of slaughter lay ahead. This sense of sleepwalking into a crisis lays over much of British society today. This is coupled with a sense of general decay and decline which is reminiscent of the 1970s. Once again economic inequality has sparked wave after wave of strike action and severe unemployment. We face the return of rolling winter blackouts and candle-lit evenings, not out of romance but necessity. The pessimism and ennui that defined much of that time is returning to the discourse and can certainly be found in Fradley’s work. Here, a burnt-out car or an abandoned corrugated iron shed, rot and rust quietly in verdant landscapes, there, a bramble forces its way through graffitied concrete into a derelict scene. There is an overwhelming sense that the best is behind us.

However, the silent backdrop for all these scenes is the British landscape, specifically that of the South Devon coast where Fradley resides. In a number of these images the landscape is allowed to speak entirely for itself, captured at sunset, and imbued with a sense of nostalgia that seems to rise from the very trees and soil. In these photographs, landscape and time combine to speak to a certain continuity that persists regardless of the zeitgeist. This is reminiscent of the role that the British landscape has long played in the art of these islands, in the post-war years the neo-romantics such as Hepworth, Moore, and Sutherland, turned to the abstract and ancient forms of the coast and country as a balm for the fears and anxieties of their day. ‘Your BRITAIN, fight for it now’ ran the text on one particular war-time recruitment poster, beneath a beautiful illustration of the South Downs by poster artist Frank Newbould; it showed a shepherd with his faithful dog driving their flock of sheep over rolling foothills towards a picturesque farm in the sunlit valley below. Rising behind we see green hills capped with castle ruins and ancient hill forts, and in the distance the blue waters of the channel. It portrays a vision of England with which we are very familiar. The vision of the National Trust tea towel, the British Railways poster, and hymns like ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Clearly potent stuff in wartime, the idea of such a way of life, so tied to the British landscape, passing away under tyranny still catches in the throat. But already in the 1940s this was becoming fiction, scenes like this had already passed away as ancient countryside communities lost their sons to the trenches of the wars or the ever-growing industrial centres of London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Newcastle. Even as far back as the 1940s these images of the landscape were directly associated with nostalgia for a ‘golden age’, the raking evening light on Fradley’s landscapes seems to nod in the direction of such rhetoric but with the knowledge that the rural way of life is now all but extinct.

So, we see our own age of anxiety mirror those that have come before us, times of war and crisis that unmoored society, but what is the root cause of such troubled times? Beyond the surface issues of a rudderless government and a collapsing economy, there would seem to be a general lack of confidence in our society, our state, and our future. The cultural historian Kenneth Clark, in his grand historical survey ‘Civilisation’, spoke of “confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers” as being the fundamental tenets of any functional and prosperous society. These are the things that make people believe it is worth the effort to build great structures, push boundaries, develop ideas, and most crucially of all, produce works of art. When one looks around Britain today it is hard to say that any of Clark’s rules apply. A chain of unpopular governments, mired in corruption, a growing sense of inequality fostering extremism, division being used as a political tool, and a general collapse of the post-cold war settlement all combine to fundamentally undermine confidence.

A long-reigning Queen has died, London is draped in mourning banners and flags are at half-mast. For the first time in many people’s memory a King, an ageing one at that, has ascended to the throne. It is not 2022 but rather 1901, Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, has died. She had reigned over the greatest expansion of the British economy and territory in history, and her passing seemed to mark the end of an era, but, in the opening decade of the twentieth century, she left Britain as the unrivalled global power. Things could not be more different this time round, whilst Elizabeth reigned for even longer and saw the world pass from analogue to digital, her death comes at a time when confidence in Britain, and stability globally, seems to be at an all-time low. For all the crimes and injustices of the Victorian era, they could at least point to a number of seemingly immovable pillars in their society on whose foundation Britain's place in the world could be built, the Empire, the Church, parliamentary democracy, and the monarch herself. None of these stand solid in Britain today, the Empire, now dissolved into the Commonwealth, caused suffering to millions around the world and we are now acutely aware that its prosperity was built on exploitation, the modern multicultural complexion of the nation means a collective church is impossible, respect and confidence in our democracy is at a record low due to endless scandal and client tabloid media. From Victoria's age onwards, much of Britain’s power and influence has been directly tied to an industrialised economy that we now know to have been destroying our planet with increasing speed and ferocity. With the death of Queen Elizabeth, who Philip Larkin called that ‘one constant good’, our fearful eyes are forced to look into an uncertain future. Whether rationally or not, for many she seemed to embody a direct link back to a time when Britain was confident in itself and its place in the world. In front of us is the prospect of being socially, culturally, politically, and ecologically homeless.

Trying to prognosticate about a future for Britain leaves us like Eliot on the sands, connecting nothing with nothing. If we look to our past we find anxiety or misplaced confidence, if we look to our future we see the same. The myth that our last 150 years constituted a ‘golden age’ for Britain is looking increasingly threadbare, especially when one examines the recorded feelings of those who lived through those years. What we can say for certain is that great change is coming, a society that dances on the precipice is vulnerable to the winds of change and, whilst nobody seems to know or understand where we’re going, we're facing a very different world in the coming decades. Samuel Fradley’s photography distils a society caught in this moment in a language beyond words. It is a language of atmospheres and allusions that makes totems of our everyday surroundings. Work like his refutes Clark’s cult of confidence, ages of anxiety almost always produce fascinating and moving works of art, from poetry to painting, music to photographs, these works become not just expressions of a zeitgeist but crucial documents and moving testaments in our troubled national story. 

Essay by: Morgan Haigh, Art Historian