'An Englishman's Home...': Reflections on the Tony Martin case
Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn
September 25th 2002
A version of this paper originally appeared in the journal Soundings Issue 20, Summer 2002
Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer jailed for shooting dead a teenage burglar in 1999, is reputedly due for release this week. Commenting on Martin's original conviction for murder (reduced to manslaughter on appeal one year later), William Hague argued that, 'there is all the difference in the world between the career criminal who sets out deliberately to burgle a house and the terrified homeowner who acts to protect himself and his home. Unless our laws reflect natural justice, then they fall into disrepute' (Dyer and Travis 2000). What concepts of home and nation underpin this difference between criminal violence and violence enacted in the defence of the home? What imaginary links exist today between ideas of violence, home and national English identity?
Take two figures who have triggered academic and popular debate about the powerful symbolic status of the home and the integral links between the home, nation, rural community and English countryside: the right wing philosopher and now experimental farmer, Roger Scruton; the fenland farmer, Tony Martin. Roger Scruton is the author of England: An Elegy (2000), one of a number of recent popular publications that seek to grasp the essence of Englishness at a moment when it is perceived to be slipping away. 1This paper is partly a dialogue with that book. Martin was the resident of the run down, appositely named, Bleak House in Norfolk, who shot two intruders on August 20th 1999 killing one and injuring the other, provoked a national debate about crime, justice and protection of rural communities. These two figures encourage us to think about the current defensive recreation of an authentic English identity against the perceived sense of social decay.
The discourses and images these two very different figures articulate and provoke are concerned with preservation, safety, containment, security in the face of the changing landscape of the English countryside and the silenced voice of the embattled rural community. Theirs is the mannered voice of English conservative civilisation and the rage of its discontent. Scruton gives voice to a melancholic vision of the threatened and largely abandoned 'hidden order' that underpinned English identity - what he calls 'the soulful permanence ' of 'the landscape' and the habitual domestication of home (Scruton: 41 and 9).2 He implies that for England to be civilised involved a peculiarly English self-moderation upheld by the apparatus of English law and fortified by 'local customs'. Martin's defence by shotgun provoked retributive discourses of vengeance and demands for 'the full force of the law' on the part of the beleaguered country homeowner against intruders.
Martin's case arguably fuelled the political mobilisation of the countryside which was manifested so dramatically in London last Monday. The case was described by Sunday Times journalists Tim Rayment and Dipesh Gadher (2000:1) as a tale about 'the real England, the elusive, timeless place where apples come from orchards, buildings barely change and some people end their lives a few miles from where they started them. The England where Tony Martin shot Fred Barras.' Following Martin's conviction for murder, a one hundred strong group of Labour MPs drew up a manifesto for Labour to do more to tackle concerns of voters in the countryside. A group of Conservative MPs - including Gillian Shephard, the MP for Martin's constituency - demanded the government boost resources for rural policing and also clarify the law on the defence of self and property (Telegraph, 25th April 2000:1-2). Sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly linked to these responses were images of the 'underclass' - the traveller, petty criminal, the thug - who, it was implied, encroach upon the boundaries of the home, triggering 'natural' defence mechanisms. Widdecombe stated, in response to the Martin case, that householders should be allowed greater leeway to use force against such criminal classes to protect themselves and their property before being prosecuted. In her words: 'I think it is quite right to say, "have a go" as long as one is responsible about it' (Telegraph, 25th April 2000:1-2).
Roger Scruton (2000:7-8) explores 'disquiet' over cultural changes as stemming from a perceived disruption of an old experience of home - 'a loss of enchantment which made a home a place of safety and consolation.' 3 Scruton's choice and validation of the idea of 'enchantment' here invites a closer look. The idea intersects with several other discussions of national identity. Tom Nairn, (1988:9) after all, criticised the 'gilded image' of the 'enchanted glass' by which the British perceive their national identity: an image 'made up of sonorous past achievement, enviable stability, and the painted folklore of their Parliament and Monarchy.' Patrick Wright (1985:24) speaks critically of how the 'nation' and its symbolisation work to 're-enchant a disenchanted everyday life.' Scruton, on the other hand, seems to pursue enchantment as a positive way of recalling 'England.'
Here and elsewhere he draws on an unusual vocabulary of magic and enchantment to articulate an elusive and probably mythical 'experience' of national identity. For him, the key movements in English literature have been movements to 're-enchant the land', to discover 'a hidden order', a natural order perhaps that explained our presence, an order that seems, albeit unspoken, to relate blood and soil (pp40-1). Enchantment, states Scruton (p15), is a process of endowment of customs, institutions and even objects with a moral character that invites loyalty. There is nothing new about the sanctification of home, but the recent collision of events and symbols of the rural, violence and the private sphere have produced uniquely contemporary anxieties about the nature of 'home' and the need to defend it that have been resonant and politically mobilising for ordinary people. Political activism and physical confrontations around issues such as fox hunting, GM foods, petrol prices, foot and mouth and policing suggest that new, strategic and sometimes contradictory, constituencies are emerging. With their emergence we can see new articulations of the relationship between the home, violence and a defensive individualism that seeks to reinforce the home as a fortress against the outside world, as well as new sites for the contestation of public policy and national identity.
As Scruton notes, privacy more than any other social gift has been given priority in English cultural history. He observes that the freedom to close your door is the most valuable of freedoms - 'the Englishman's home [is] not just his castle but an island of "mine" in an ocean of "yours" ' (p51). These are the bricks and mortar that seem to be our last line of defence against lawlessness and disorder. "Home" is also the homeland and the structures of feeling that underpin it- a home land that in both public and private discourses often seeks to shore itself up it against some intangible contamination. Scruton inadvertently acknowledges this. In personifying England, he claims, that 'like the human being, a country contains psychic layers and residues' (p73). On the supposed English fear of intrusion, of physicality, of 'spontaneous social emotion' (p14) Scruton explains: 'physical existence exposes you to danger of contamination. Strangers must remain strangers, lest they pollute you with their intimacy' (p50). Scruton's image of the English home is one of carefully constructed defensive isolation- behind gardens, shrubs, borders which establish 'an inalienable right to possession' (Scruton:p.52). This retrenchment is both material and psychical - self enclosure being not only about ownership of a plot of the land but also about fear of exposure.
Home can be anything from a nation to a tent but what ever it is - it is an object of intense emotion (Silverstone 1994). But it is particularly the privately owned home that is intricately bound up with notions of respectability in English conservative culture. The private world of the home has become symbolically central to public discourses of law and order, disciplinarity and national identity. And politically, home ownership is coupled with moral concepts of self-reliance and civic responsibility. In Conservative political discourse home ownership has been traditionally held as an emblem of patrilineal obligation and exemplar of social stability through inheritance of property and wealth across generations. Scruton interrelates the countryside, property and the litigious nature of the English (an alleged legacy of their Anglo Saxon roots) to produce a notion of national 'trusteeship'. This is a Burkean idea of society as a contract between generations - property, land, law infuse the 'national consciousness' and are emblems of the contract between generations, the dead, the living and those not yet born (Scruton: 119).
To be 'homeless' is then often regarded as being a condition of failure and immorality. The vagrant in this sense appears severed from the past and gives nothing to the future (see Morley 2000:26-9). To be a renting tenant on a frequently run-down sink estate is to negotiate long held distinctions between the rough and the respectable in which the spectre of the 'underclass' personifies the difference between the worthy and unworthy poor. All homelands are not equal. For example recent populist debates about the asylum seeker place them as both homeless and fraudulent thereby erasing their own particular homeland histories.
While we started the paper with a quotation from William Hague, it should be underlined here that these particular discourses are not the exclusive property of the Conservative Party. Most will recall Jack Straw, as Shadow Home Secretary in early 1997, broadcasting his re-emphasis on neighbourhood and prevention of local crime under the banner 'Zero Tolerance'; an initiative in which he conjured up the decent citizen beset by squeegee merchants, winos, drug addicts and beggars. Here he reiterated a concept of individual empowerment that came to the fore in the language of neo-liberalism that achieved hegemony under Thatcher in the 1980s.
This empowerment was specifically linked to the right to security from crime, the right to consume and the right to choose. Personal responsibility for risk avoidance was frequently presented in Thatcherite discourse as a model of good citizenship. In this the obligation of home ownership is the defence of property and consumer goods within it. Law and order involved the individual's eternal vigilance. During the 1980s a rising tide of home security manuals sprung up during the 1980s, along with Neighbourhood Watch and Crimestoppers initiatives. One manual for householders published in 1984 noted: 'Security is really an attitude of mind and the techniques now available to translate that attitude into physical protection can be effectively deployed only if all the risks are recognised...to form part of a total security plan.' (Traini 1984: 8). It is this 'attitude of mind' that needs to be interrogated: the political articulation of a fear of crime and violence in what is, in fact, a relatively safe society; a fortress mentality in which the good citizen walks with purpose, or keeps 'em peeled, preparing their mind as well as their home against attack or invasion. Patrolling the boundaries, in Scruton's terms between what is 'mine' and 'yours'.
The language of home security is essentially urban or suburban - Crimestoppers, Crimewatch, Neighbourhood Watch - are about homeowners in the metropolis, the town or the outskirts of big cities. The encroachment of the urban on the rural, on the parochial small town, has itself been described as a threat to an ideal of home security.4 The liminal space where the city (and its connotations of dirt and disorder) meets the countryside is especially fraught with anxiety. As Wilmott and Young noted in Family and Class in a London Suburb (1960) the interwar ideal of the suburb as 'the country in the city' had given way, by the 1960s on the back of postwar resettlement. A record of responses by suburban dwellers in Woodford, Essex to a perceived influx of former East Enders reveals a violent resistance on their part to any invasion by the human overspill from the city's slums (in Lebeau, 1997:257). The older residents speak of their home as 'a fairyland' defiled by those who, in their class difference, breach the suburb's boundaries bringing noise, chaos, litter. There is a sense of estrangement, not only from the new inhabitants to Woodford and their language, manners and behaviour, but also from the safety of suburban home itself (p.288).
The Tony Martin case then has related, but differently weighted, political resonance from that of the urban home defender. For the rural homeowner has arguably been excluded from the language of law and order until relatively recently. Yet, the farmer especially has been central to notions of English national identity. He/she guards not only the domestic home but the home-land. As such he/she is an avatar of Englishness. More importantly, since the eruption in the press of the BSE crisis in 1996, the farmer has been at the nexus of contradictory discourses concerned with preservation of the land and the collapse of rural livelihoods. A populist environmental discourse about threatened health and 'unnatural' farming practices and political incompetence or cover-up has been criss-crossed with economic discourses about the collapse of farming and consequently the collapse of the nation's economy and international standing in general. In recent coverage of foot and mouth disease the farm has figured as an object of nostalgia and of panic. It has been the symbol of a politically ignored rural community and the focus of fears about the maintenance and crossing of thresholds - food and non food, human and animal, safe and unsafe country. These themes have appeared in displaced form in the recurring press images of defilement: the burning pyres of animal carcasses on the green fields of England.
The country as unsafe was at the core of media attention to the Tony Martin case. Martin was convicted of murder on 19th April 2000. The jury heard police evidence that Martin did not call the police when he realised that there were intruders. Instead Barras was hit three times by an illegal pump-action shotgun, two in the legs and one shot in the back. The burglary ringleader Brendon Fearon received serious leg injuries. No warning shot had been fired. The case generated huge coverage. Martin was described as a tabloid hero, having received support from almost 300,000 Sun newspaper readers. He was even credited with briefly reinvigorating William Hague's political standing (Holland 2000).
The comment made by a resident of the nearby town of Wisbech seemed to sum up local feeling, 'I'd have done exactly the same thing, but worse. I'd have made sure I shot them both. A man's home is supposed to be his castle' (Gimson 2000). This comment was published in a Telegraph newspaper article called 'Everyone in this town is living in fear'; a title that indicates the generic fearfulness and lawlessness that was identified as the condition of the town and of rural life more generally. Barras was a repeat offender from a family of travellers and much of the concern articulated in the article was focused on the travelling community. And as already indicated, to be homeless, a traveller or a nomad has connotations of fecklessness and immorality.
Their difference certainly made them conspicuous in a small town. One interviewee commented:
Travellers can be really scary. A lot of people really hate them. They just go round stealing things. But they are a bit the butt-end of blame. They talk differently, they don't talk like normal people, they've got their own codes, they just sound like idiots. (Gimson 2000)
Here a fear of homelessness is linked to abnormality and used to express real everyday fears about policing and potential crime which extend beyond first-hand experience to a more general image of the dangerous and dissolute.
The 'Tony Martin support Group' presented him as an emblem of the deep divisions in British society between the 'urban-minded government and rural folk'.5 They suggested that he stood for the rural values of 'self-help, hard work, respect for authority, the family and the Crown as symbol and totem of the nation' (Tony Martin Support Group: 2). Of his rough justice they added, 'Not all country people have the same defeatist attitude to crime as our metropolitan elite' (p.2). Martin was known as an eccentric to local police and slept at Bleak House fully clothed with his boots on. He was obsessed with idea of being burgled. Three months before the murder, thieves had stolen furniture packed with irreplaceable family mementoes. Not long before that a grandfather clock had been stolen. He had informed friends that he had been the victim of at least six other break-ins in ten years although he did not report them and police cannot be sure they occurred. When the jury visited Bleak House they saw the booby traps he had laid out for burglars, they were not told that he had had guns removed two years before after incidents wherein he shot at someone stealing apples and, in an argument with his brother, shot out a window. Martin harboured violent fantasies about the travellers he employed to pick fruit, he talked of putting them in a field, surrounding it with barbed wire and machine gunning them.
The law exists to protect us from crime. But, it has been argued that it is also there to protect us from ourselves (Rayment and Gadher 2000). It is there to deter the primitive emotions and violent excesses to which we could be provoked if, like Martin, the home becomes always a site of fear, a prison. In this sense it failed to deter Martin from his dangerous irrationality, '[a]fter so many burglaries , real or imagined, he felt he could not trust the state to protect him, and grew so irrational that he was dangerous' (ibid:6). His fears provoke debate not only about rural policing and its inadequacies but also the fact that 'in some rural areas fear of crime is endemic' (ibid:6). His fears also recall Freud's 'uncanny' as one of the prevalent metaphors through which we explore the contradiction between our desire for the familiar, the homely, for a stable coherent community and the fissuring of that image by the unspeakable, the terrifying, the alien or unknown. Freud's essay famously begins by noting the convergence of two apparently polar words heimlich (familiar or close to home) and unheimlich (unfamiliar, strange) around a sense of 'something hidden and dangerous' (Freud, 1987:340). Martin spoke nostalgically of his childhood memories. Such memories for Martin were ruptured by those of invasion and death which fractured the safety of his fortified farm.
Freud described the uncanny propensity of the familiar place to turn on its owner and become defamiliarised. When Patrick Holland interviewed Martin for a TV documentary, he visited Bleak House and noted the thicket of trees that surrounded it. Martin described this 'mantle of trees' as a rainforest he had created for the wildlife, it signified for him naturalness and isolation but also a moat-like protection from the dangers of the contemporary countryside (Guardian, 4th September 2000:2). While awaiting trial in a 'safe house' Martin appeared unrepentant about the shootings seeing them as the appropriate response to fear: ' We are supposed to live in a civilised society, but it is not the way I have been treated. People are not aware of what it's like in the countryside: criminals prevail - it cannot be right. It's not right that people should live in fear' (Telegraph, 20th April 2000:1).6
In 'England: An Imaginary Country' Kevin Daly noted: 'Notions of identity, authenticity and essence, where they do gain a footing, have to be created, buttressed and recreated. Where this activity is feverish, as in England today, the greatest dangers and opportunities can be found' (1999:7). The creation and re-creation of a national identity embedded in unfashionable and deeply questionable notions of Englishness, whiteness and ruralism seems to have reached a feverish pitch. Tony Martin finds himself released this week from Highpoint low security prison in Suffolk; his parole being adjudicated in the same week that saw the Countryside Alliance march into central London. On Sunday the 22nd September marchers, up to 40,000 of them, progressed in two cohorts named 'livelihood' and 'liberty' towards Whitehall in what they described as a civil liberties demonstration. Issues of law and order, of home and nation, livelihood and hunting and of country people as custodians of the land came together in a confusing melange.
The 'opportunities' of this mobilisation have been all but lost and the concomitant 'dangers' too easily underestimated. It needs to be asked, why at this time, such a demonstration could achieve wall-to-wall media coverage - much of it quite positive - when the build-up to previous popular events such as the anti-poll tax demos and May Day protests went under-reported. The march was easily reconciled with traditional notions of Englishness and authenticity. Francis Wheen described popular protest as 'an underrated British tradition' and compared the march, ill-advisedly, with the revolutionary actions of the Chartist movement. The British National Party, despite being repudiated by the Alliance, has identified a 'radicalised middle Britain' to which it might affiliate. Prince Charles lobbied the Government on the Alliance's behalf, locating rural people within a dubious hierarchy of oppression. He quoted with approval a letter from a Cumbrian farmer who stated, 'If we as a group, were black or gay, we would not be victimised or picked on.' The British aristocracy, who until quite recently, had been dismissed by intellectuals and politicos as anachronistic and irrelevant, are re-claiming rural affairs as an arena of paternal influence.
Like many 'popular' conservative movements, this one has been mobilised through a combination of deeply felt local activism, the vigorous support of the monied establishment and a highly effective media orchestration. Ironically, this avowed challenge to the 'metropolitan elite' was promoted and underpinned by a rural elite of multimillionaire landowners. Far from marking a moment of liberation for the rural poor from metropolitan prejudices and condescension, or more concretely, of creating a politicised collective of ordinary working people the March has married even more closely the ideological worlds of Tony Martin and Roger Scruton.
The growing number of countryside citizens falling beneath the poverty threshold and the corollary of declining services and unaffordable housing will not be addressed through this alliance. Official figures show that there are now 17,160 homeless households in priority need in rural areas. The indiscriminate sell-off of social housing during the Thatcher years, that fed the flames of the home ownership ideal in the cities, also robbed the country of its housing stock. In many villages two-thirds of council housing has disappeared, with second homeowners only being charged 50% of the local council tax. The establishment of Rural Housing Enablers, agents who work together with local councils, landowners, developers and housing associations, to meet local housing needs is a typical new Government initiative: piecemeal, small scale and with no broader vision of what might constitute social housing in the 21st century. The culture of home-ownership is now firmly entrenched within national policy and has been ideologically central to the re-invigoration of traditional notions of Englishness and 'authentic' national identity. Unless social housing and secure tenancies are reviewed and recast as potentially progressive solutions this culture will remain unchallenged. But these issues are already disappearing from view, hidden by the dust of a larger hegemonic battle: between a landed and aristocratic establishment that is only now recovering from the drubbing it received during the Thatcher years and the 'modernising' metropolitan elite of New Labour.
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Heather Nunn is Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Communications at the Department of Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, Middlesex University. She is the author of Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy: The Political Culture of Gender and Nation (Lawrence and Wishart November 2002).
Anita Biressi is Programme Convenor for Cultural Studies, School of Humanities and Cultural Studies, Roehampton. She is the author of Crime, Fear and the Law in True Crime Stories (Palgrave 2001).