Paul Kingsnorth is undoubtedly a man of the Left. The former deputy editor at The Ecologist magazine has written a book decrying globalization and helped found the Dark Mountain Project, a loose international network of environmental activists. He is also the author of The Wake, one of the most strikingly original historical novels in recent memory and a surprisingly conservative meditation on place, culture, and language.
Kingsnorth’s book is a fictional account of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England, told from the perspective of a dispossessed Anglo-Saxon freeholder and rendered entirely in a modernized version of Old English. The first five pages take about an hour to decipher, but once you get used to the rhythm of the language, the pace picks up dramatically. It helps that English was pretty repetitive before the sudden introduction of so much borrowed French vocabulary.
The book’s language is an effective way to introduce modern readers to the legacy of the Norman Conquest, but other reminders abound. Robin Hood originated as a Saxon folk hero driven to outlawry by foreign occupiers (echoed, in Kingsnorth’s book, by “the grene men” who emerge from the forests to ambush French knights). Popular English histories emphasize the brutality of “the Norman yoke” and cast subsequent events, from the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, as efforts to reclaim historic Anglo-Saxon liberties from the ruling class. A 2013 study found that Norman surnames like Darcy, Percy, and Mandeville still dominate elite British educational institutions and high-status professions. This recalls Sir Walter Scott’s observation that after the Conquest, English was relegated to the farmyard (“swine,” “ox,” and “calf” are all German-derived) while French became the language of the table.
Aside from its historic resonance, The Wake is notable because its avowedly left-wing author is quite adept at evoking conservative themes. Buccmaster of Holland, the ill-starred protagonist of The Wake, is defiant and backward-looking to the end. One imagines Kingsnorth’s fellow lefties shaking their heads at his failure to appreciate the opportunities offered by England’s sudden absorption into a multi-ethnic European superstate. Doesn’t this reactionary dullard realize there is more to life than his beloved Fenns?
Lest you think this is a caricature of left-wing opinion, consider the following from a recent piece on European immigration in Current Affairs. Other than straightforward racism, the author simply can’t understand why anyone would object to immigration on cultural grounds:
Beyond a simple dislike of the sight of brown faces, I can’t figure out what precious “Europeanness” Murray anticipates will be lost in this world of immigrant-heavy cities. Surely people will enjoy their food, go for walks, read interesting books, pursue their favorite hobbies? Surely they’ll share these pleasures with their families and friends, as they’ve always done?
People surely will continue to enjoy food, go for walks, and read books, whatever their national origins or cultural backgrounds. These are universal human pursuits. Other habits and customs, however, are less universal. They are products of geography, culture, history, and language. If large numbers of outsiders suddenly arrive, these habits and customs will fade or change. This can be enriching and exciting, or it can be disruptive. It can even be both. But to deny that mass immigration produces cultural change, as many on the left are intent on doing, is simple foolishness.
Or maybe it’s a product of our own cultural blinders. In 2016, The Verge published an article on the relentless spread of Silicon Valley minimalism. Some unholy combination of social media, travel websites, brand consultants, and homogenizing tastes have colonized coffee shops, bars, and hotels the world over with the same features: “Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet.”
This aesthetic convergence is more apparent with each passing year. On Airbnb, national borders barely exist. The hosts know what visitors want (fast internet, minimalist design) and what they don’t (awkward interactions with locals, which is presumably why coded key boxes are so popular). One common motif in youth hostels and Airbnb apartments is wallpaper stenciled with the names of foreign cities in bright colors: London, Tokyo, Paris, New York. You could be here. You could be there. You could be anywhere.
A frequent refrain from backpackers, digital nomads, and veteran expats is that they are “at home in any country.” At first blush, this is an absurd statement. The comfort of home can’t be replicated across cultures, borders, and languages. On further reflection, however, a vague sense of familiarity has become the default expectation for Western tourists. The street signs might change, but coffee, brunch, and your apartment are always the same.
The political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term “Davos Culture” to describe an elite stratum of diplomats, financiers, business and NGO executives, and media figures who share certain ideas about how the world should work, regardless of their national origins. The shock troops of Silicon Valley minimalism are a rung or two below the Davosi on the economic ladder, but their preferences and spending habits have come to define 21st-century tourism. Thanks to the rise of social media and their comparatively larger numbers, the Airbnb generation has a much bigger cultural footprint than their wealthier Davos counterparts could ever claim.
This generation is doing its best to prove that travel does, in fact, narrow the mind. If your interactions with foreigners are limited to remote bookings, generic coffee shops, and other carefully vetted spaces, how can you develop an appreciation for the vast differences that often separate people from other parts of the world? International travel now conditions us to discount the possibility that foreigners might be different, or that cultural gulfs can’t be bridged by a few helpful reviews on Trip Advisor. Seen from this perspective, why would mass immigration pose a unique challenge? After all, people will continue to enjoy their food and read interesting books, probably from the comfort of a coffee shop with reclaimed wood paneling.
Of course, the lure of the familiar is hard to resist. I am writing from a coffee shop with exposed brick walls and a playlist that wouldn’t be out of place in Berlin or New York. This particular corner of Eastern Hungary has been thoroughly colonized by the Airbnb aesthetic. When you walk out the door, however, things start to change. English penetration is pretty limited here, at least compared to other European countries. I suspect this is because Hungarian is a notable outlier among the continent’s great language families, a fact the locals are perversely proud of. They revel in their language’s baroque grammatical structure, their penchant for elaborate cursing, and the near-impenetrability of their conversations to foreign visitors. In this respect, they are not unlike Buccmaster of Holland, who laments the displacement of English names and places by their French equivalents.
Taking pride in their linguistic heritage might mark the Hungarians as provincial or backward-looking. An idiosyncratic language spoken by 11 million people in one corner of Eastern Europe certainly isn’t optimized for our global era. It is, however, a powerful reminder that cultural differences matter, and will persist for the foreseeable future. You don’t have to be a conservative to recognize this, as Kingsnorth’s book demonstrates. You do, however, have to step outside the coffee shop.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.