A review of “Britain an Island Again”: Nature, the Military, and Popular Views of the British Countryside, c.1930-1965, by Sophia Davis.
When I was a boy my favorite places were the low-lying coasts of East Anglia, where marshes and shingle beaches fired my enthusiasm for bird-watching. Places like Minsmere seemed exotic with their reed beds and shallow scrapes, but there was something importantly British about them too. I knew that these were amongst the only refuges for an array of rare birds, such as avocets. I was dimly aware that the nation would have lost something important, if it were not for these damp and wild sanctuaries. Sophia Davis has been to those marshes too and has written a fascinating thesis exploring the links between nature, nation and the military that were forged between 1930 and 1965.
Davis begins not on those reserves but in the military research facilities of Orford Ness and Bawdsey. She focuses particularly on the role of these “island laboratories” in the development of radar. The context in which this is examined is the threat posed to Britain’s island status by the emergence of aircraft in warfare. As such, the development of radar involved the re-establishment of national boundaries through the production of a network of coastal radar stations. Increasing international connectivity was thus countered by more intra-national connectivity. Davis is not only concerned with Britain as an island but also with the creation of “island-laboratories” as a means of disciplining space. Drawing on authors such as Bruno Latour, Michael Lynch and Michel Callon she persuasively examines the production of these laboratories and their effects on both research and researchers, who established a quirky egalitarian community of cricket-playing “island boffins”.
Davis moves on to explore the role of vision in establishing the radar network. She contrasts the “seeing” that radar provided with the dark, enclosed world of wartime England, in which the eyes of the Observer Corps looked upwards to spot enemy aircraft. The sky, according to Lord Beaverbrooke, was our watchtower. The challenge for radar scientists was to make invisible radio waves visible, and in so doing they “unfastened seeing from being seen” (p. 64). They also resolved how to make place disappear so that the background noise of landscape no longer interfered with seeing what needed to be seen. This was later turned around however, as radar began to be applied more offensively in order to bomb enemy cities. Through the “magic” of radar the sky did not just become our watchtower, it became nationalized, re-establishing the island boundary that enemy bombers threatened.
The focus on militarism is then broadened, as Davis explores the wartime mobilization of both people and landscape. Landscape was both opened up and closed down through the production of coastal defenses, military manoeuvres, the cordoning off of training areas and the emergence of “invasion villages”. Nervous new meetings between rural residents, urban evacuees and American service personnel burgeoned as imaginings of invasion became ever more influential. In the post-war era the placelessness that had been forged at military sites had to be re-established as English.
Perhaps the most striking insight in this thesis concerns the ways in which militarism and nature conservation were connected and it is to conservation that Davis turns next. In particular, she is intrigued by the story of the avocet and its recolonization of Britain, specifically in the wartime-created wetlands at Minsmere and Havergate Island. The importance of avocets rendered these sites as pivotal in making protecting sites and managing habitats central to British conservation. Davis’ interpretation of avocet narratives demonstrates convincingly why this developed and how it drew on ideas of islands and militarism.
She begins by exploring how the avocet was made British. Contemporary narratives drew together its past history in Britain with its subsequent recolonization so as to demonstrate continuities. The avocet was thus a returning bird that had been “lost” and could be likened to returning service personnel rather than immigrants. They could then become the heritage the British had been fighting for. In the following chapter Davis explores the role of reserves in the story of the avocet. Here again, issues of isolation and secrecy emerge, in response to fears of subversive egg collectors and unruly bird-watchers. The mysterious “goings-on” of the avocets are thus likened to the secrecy surrounding the development of radar. However, this veil of mystery and exclusivity was worn away by post-war demands for greater access. Despite the encroachment of visitors, reserves were still considered as “island laboratories” in which natural conditions were created by humans but in such a way as to conceal their creation. Wilderness in this sense was a problem if it went out of control, almost as if it was un-British.
The thesis broadens into a discussion of the role of vision in conservation and observation. In an intriguing discussion of the development of hides on nature reserves, Davis considers how these were used to manage visitor relations with birds and landscapes and how they framed the views that visitors had of nature. Hides created a boundary between humans and birds, allowing the human to simply have the role of observer who sees but is not seen. Hides simultaneously create distance and presence as the observer overlooks an orchestrated but seemingly natural scene. The similar distancing but involving effects of natural history films are also discussed.
In the final section, Davis discusses the representation of Suffolk in guidebooks, historical and topographical writings. In these the militarism of the Suffolk landscape that had emerged during the war was concealed to emphasize its essential Englishness, whose elusive charms required careful searching out. Indeed Suffolk was presented as a microcosm of the nation that, rather than being in the throes of profound change, reflected continuities with the past. Davis argues that the emphasis on these qualities countered growing anxieties about the loss of the Ingoldian taskscapes of rural Suffolk in the face of modernization and militarism. She then counters this representation by examining three aspects of the Suffolk landscape in which militarism was prominent: sea, sky and the Martello Towers that line the coast. These highlight different ways in which the “nation’s edge” was perceived at different times. The sea was both livelihood and threat, the sky sublime but porous space that could also become the nation’s watchtower, and the towers were metaphors for the ravages of time and war.
I was excited and intrigued by this evocatively written thesis. In particular I was drawn to the links between nature and nation and the conceptual role of islands in forging these. Although the focus is on a short period of history in a localized area, there is much of wider significance to the development of nature conservation and militarism. As an alternative military history, it provides an important account of the role of vision in the effectiveness of military activity – something that endures in the “precision bombing” of modern warfare. As a history of conservation, it reveals much about how species are made significant, why habitat management on “island reserves” became so central in British conservation, and how the idealized experience that reserves are intended to offer has arisen. It made me rethink places I had visited and things I had done in a way that only the strongest academic work can, and I hope that the author is able to make their work available to a wider audience soon.
Department of Anthropology
University of Aberdeen
Film: Tawny Pipit (1944), directed by Bernard Miles and Charles Saunders
Suffolk Oral History Archive, Suffolk Public Record Office, Ipswich
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Archive, The Lodge, RSPB Sandy
East Anglian Daily Times
Mass Observation reports
Geoffrey Holmes Collection, Orford Museum
University of Cambridge. 2010. 257pp. Primary Advisors: Nick Jardine and Helen Macdonald.
Image: Paul Nash, “Battle of Britain” (1941). Imperial War Museum.