Book Review: The Village That Died For England by Patrick Wright

“I didn’t want to leave Tyneham; I wanted to stop there, because it was a nice place. It’s what you get used to – if you’ve been born there, I mean.” – John Gould, Tyneham resident (1986)

Abandoned objects create an aura of curiosity. What is it? Who put it there? Why? This aura is bigger and widespread when it comes to more permanent abandoned objects, like a house, a castle, or an entire settlement. There are a number of abandoned settlements across the world and many gain mythologies that explain their history, local culture and what killed that culture. In a military training ground in Dorset, near England’s south coast, is one such settlement.

The village of Tyneham was once home to 225 residents. In 1943 the it was evacuated by the War Office to make it a training site for the military to train for D-Day. Originally intended to be a temporary measure, but in 1948 the Army made a compulsory purchase order on its land, making it a permanent training site since.

This village has generated a sense of mourning due to it becoming a physical manifestation of a shared “tragedy” that exists in England’s psyche. Before World War II, England saw itself as a great nation. It ruled the waves and had an empire upon which the sun never set. A rich democratic nation where many live in green fields and thatched-roofed cottages, whose occupants only got interrupted by the modern world by the “ring-ring” of a black Bakelite telephone from the GPO. (The book mentions the small uproar by a few residents when a telephone box was installed in 1929).

Then, after beating the Germans in 1945, things went downhill. England lost the empire, gained a “welfare state,” joined Europe, and became “multicultural.” Tyneham became a symbol of the “Lost England” because of a “promise” by Winston Churchill that its residents would get to move back in after the war. But Churchill got voted out and a Labour government “broke” that “promise.” The decision to vote for Labour in 1945 was a turning point in British history, and some (older) Englishmen think that decision was (in hindsight, mixed with Daily Mail propaganda) a mistake. The England that resulted from Attlee’s “New Jerusalem” was not the England, they thought, the soldiers that stormed Normandy were fighting for. An old England that is now in ruins – in the form of Tyneham.

The book covers the history of the village and its surrounding area, with focus on its natural beauty and the conflict between the country brigade and the military, beginning with the creation of a tank training ground in 1916. He interviewed former residents to paint a picture what like was actually like in this “Lost England.” They reveal that the jolly image painted by years of advertising, books, films and TV is a facade covering a rigid social class system.

But the most interesting is the story of Rodney Legg and the creation of the Tyneham Action Group. What is interesting is that before finding the militant group in 1968, he was a member of the League of Empire Loyalists – a pioneering militant pro-empire group that later became a vehicle for the National Front. Does this mean that the mission to reclaim Tyneham (and save the “Lost England”) is a front for right-wing politics?

When this book was originally published back in 1995, it seemed that England was getting over it and embracing the unknown future the “New Jerusalem” instigated. The idea that the English were mourning for their lost country was considered archaic, like wearing bowler hats to work.

But, in 2021, it has been shown that this myth is alive and well in England, as proven by Brexit. That myth, that England was better before 1945, is a factor that led to the rise of Neo-Liberalism, in the form of Margaret Thatcher and her privatizing “trickle-down” economic policies. Think about that the next time you see the archive footage of her campaigns. And then look at anything to do with Brexit. With this myth of a “lost England” in mind, a section of British politics makes more sense.

England is a country full of passive working people, eccentrics, idealists, local campaigners and old people who mourn for a country that never really existed. You rarely find a book that explores such a rich cross section of people to explore the reality that is England.

The Village That Died for England is available now published by Watkins Media

Review by Gordon Wallace

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