by Sita Balani
This Is England directed by Shane Meadows (2006) is explicit in its concern with race and national identity: eponymous England is a place heaving with racial tension in the story of Shaun, a white working class boy in the North East in the early 1980s, who finds friendship and guidance in a group of skinheads. In Meadow’s film, racial divisions are played out and tested to their limits in the symbolic locale of a corner shop. The shop is the subject of two separate attacks that act as milestones in Shaun’s story. The clip above (skip to 50 seconds in) shows Shaun and the gang joyfully pillaging the corner shop, throwing into sharp relief the ambivalent place of the Asian shopkeeper in the national imaginary. The skinheads’ all too familiar litany of racial abuse caricatures the shopkeeper as a smelly, job-stealing threat to the purity and prosperity of the English ethnos. The violent and bacchanalian attack goes beyond mere opportunism, raising questions about why the Asian shopkeeper is such a potent symbol and target of race hate. In a peculiar turn of events, in the spin-off TV series This Is England ’86 – the very same shopkeeper becomes Shaun’s stepfather. What’s going on? What might these transformations tell us about the cultural significance of the Asian corner shop in Britain?
In this two part series I will sketch a history of the corner shop and the local shopkeeper in Britain, tying the corner shop into the history of Empire, a symbol through which the psycho-geography of the nation becomes intelligible. I hope to show how the contemporary shopkeeper, so often South Asian – is a complicated and ambivalent figure, very much caught up in colonial histories.
‘A Nation of Shopkeepers’
The phrase ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ is often attributed to Napoleon, although it appears many times prior to his declamation. In Napoleon’s famous remark, he was understood to mean that England was too concerned with commerce to be a credible military match for his army. In hindsight then, the phrase’s derogatory intent is undercut by irony: Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England, so his assertion remained untested.
More recently, those advocates of commerce as determining national character have swelled some of the derogatory implications of the phrase with pride. Whether seen in a positive or negative light, the phrase suggests that a preoccupation with commerce is a vital facet of national identity. This supposed link begs the question of precisely what is the perceived relationship between a nation’s economy and its character? Specifically, what is the relationship between Britain and shopkeeping?
The earliest recorded use of the phrase appears in Adam Smith’s A Wealth of Nations in 1776:
To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.
Smith yokes together shopkeeping, the nation and Empire. It appears that this configuration was a standard part of eighteenth century economic discourse. Josiah Tucker, Dean of Gloucester, produced a slightly different phrase in 1766:
And what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shopkeeping nation’.
From the multiple occurrences of this trope, we can infer that the figure of the shopkeeper was analogous to the nation in the early years of Empire.
Making the middle class liberal individual
If we fast-forward a couple of centuries, it seems that the core of these associations persisted into twentieth century Britain and beyond. In his ’Note on the English Character’, E. M. Forster suggests that ‘solidity, caution, integrity, efficiency. Lack of imagination, hypocrisy […] characterise the middle classes in every country’. The assessment of these characteristics as conspicuously English as well as universally middle class, resonates with Smith’s assertion of the shopkeeper’s influence upon government. Indeed, Forster states that ‘the character of the English is essentially middle class’ because, since the eighteenth century, the middle class were the dominant force in the ‘imagined community’ of the nation. This middle class dominance seems to strengthen the apparent links between the shopkeeper and Empire, for the rise of the bourgeoisie and the expansion of British colonisation are temporally analogous, as well as grounded in shared ideology.
When researching corner shops, I brushed the dust from a long-forgotten little volume from 1947: A Nation of Shopkeepers [A defence of the small tradesman] by Tom S. Rothwell, the then Vice President of the Independent Traders Alliance. Rothwell uses the figure of the shopkeeper to frame his idiosyncratic manifesto for liberal individualism. The picture he paints resonates deeply with Forster’s assessment of the national character. For Rothwell, individualism is expressed through the shop itself,
‘Even the arrangement of its shelves, its counter and its window display, in fact every feature of the shop, reflects the owner’s personality. It is a part of his personality.’
This analysis suggests a symbiotic relationship between the keeper and the shop, the owner and the property. Crucially, the shopkeeper makes his (and it was most often a man) personal mark on the property, uninfluenced by the State, shareholders or managers. If private property and expressive individualism are both cornerstones of classical liberalism, the shopkeeper becomes a liberal figure par excellence.
At a time when a new Tesco Metro appears to be opening on every corner, the figure of the shopkeeper may seem like an anachronism, a throwback from an earlier, more innocent era. Actually nostalgia has clung to the corner shop for centuries. As Bill Evans and Andrew Lawson note, the early nineteenth century saw the same concerns about the disappearance of independent shops as we see today. In 1836 Charles Dickens lamented that newer, shinier establishments are replacing ‘quiet, dusty old shops’. The persistence of this nostalgia for independent shops – and a fantasised accompanying community spirit – suggests that the nation-building project must be understood through elements of pain and anxiety, and a longing for a lost ‘home’.
Rothwell notes that rationing during World War Two revived the centrality of local shops to the functioning of a community, with the ‘Blitz spirit’ symbolising national character (think Keep Calm and Carry On or the relentless persistence of bunting). Rothwell’s evocation of the shopkeeper’s role in this time of alleged national unity aligns the small shop with strength and moral fortitude. More recently, Evans and Lawler evoke similar nostalgic ideas
‘There are items that trigger off memories of childhood; symbols, signs and smells, even products that our grandparents were familiar with in their youth.’
This appeal to emotions via the senses establishes the small shop as a privileged site of patriotic nostalgia, what Avtar Brah refers to as the ‘scent of memory’.
Whilst far from comprehensive, I hope my investigations give a flavour of some of the associations between shopkeeping and nation-building. As in all nationalist discourses, race – though unarticulated – is there in the shadows. In the texts noted so far, the shopkeeper is figured as white and male. Yet, with their frequent references to ‘corner shops’, the nostalgic picture of white England in these texts must compete with the more common contemporary image of corner shops run by brown migrants. The images evoked in the texts I have cited appear all the more anachronistic as they run counter to an image of an Asian shopkeeper that has become archetypal in contemporary Britain. What does the phrase ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ evoke today? Or, to put it another way, what happens when the ‘empire of customers’ takes their place as shopkeepers in the former colonial nation?
Arguably, for white British people, Asian migrants have been at their most visible in the archetype of the corner shop. The corner shop could be seen as a everyday ‘contact zone’, defined by Mary Louise Pratt as ‘social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other’ (p.4). This ‘contact zone’ is one in which ‘native’ and ‘settler’ interact in seemingly banal ways that may nonetheless be fraught with the tensions and connections that characterise multicultural Britain.
Anxious times, anxious places
Writing about the 1980s, Kouthik and Partha Banerjea note that ‘as provision itself became a foundational economic principle in this recession-laden Britain, it could be argued that the corner shop increasingly epitomised a particularly British way of life’ (117). This ‘way of life’ was markedly different to the ‘British way of life’ of World War Two, during which national sentiment was mobilised through the invocation of the collective good, of rallying together in the service of national unity against a common military enemy. In contrast, by the 1980s the political discourse expressed a rather different sentiment. Classical liberal theory had morphed into the realities of neoliberalism and its relentless focus on the individual. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher famously swept the myth of the ‘Blitz spirit’ when she declared that ‘there is no such thing as society’.
The sight of some British Asian shopkeepers appearing to profit during these troubled economic and anxious times may have driven home ‘a painful reminder […] of the dream gone sour: a nation of shopkeepers reduced to a nation of hungry shoppers’ (Banerjea and Banerjea.) The obvious comparison between ‘80s Tory Britain and today suggests that Asian shopkeepers may still provoke a similar resentment. As noted, the earliest recorded links between nation and shopkeeper appear in the eighteenth century, at a time of rapid industrialisation and colonial expansion. The British Asian shopkeeper becomes a visible and anxious node in the national imagination following decolonisation, when Britain was in a period of deindustrialisation supplemented by the growth of the service industries.
Corner shops, of course, don’t merely exist as a fantasy – they are real places into which we venture for a pint of milk and a packet of fags. These encounters are no less significant for their ordinariness: rather, they are some of the ‘fleshy multicultural encounters’ that form ‘the rubric through which difference is assembled and the grammar though which race is made legible’ (Anoop Nayak). The example from This Is England, shows that inside the ‘contact zone’ of the shop, racist violence can act as a kind of release valve for fury and frustration during the hard realities of a recession.
Next week, I will draw on my personal experience and ethnographic research to give some examples of ‘encounters across the counter’ inside the corner shop, and what they might tell us about race making in contemporary British life.
Sita Balani is a PhD student at King’s College London, writing on contemporary literature, national identity and modernity. She is also a freelance journalist and an editor of fiction and non-fiction. Recent articles on migration, Islamophobia, and fascism can be found on The Multicultural Politic. She is editing an anthology called Queers Talk Lesbian Notions to be published in 2014. @sitainshort
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