A New Mesolithic Mindset in place: When the rough beast returns

This article from John Billingsley[1] is intended as a reflection upon the influence of urbanised and planned landscapes upon human perceptions and the social and political attitudes that may derive from shifting psychogeographic viewsheds

Broadly and simply summarised, the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, was characterised by a change in human relationships with the land. The forested landscapes of Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) England began to be cleared for farming and other purposes. Concurrently came the introduction of monuments into the cleared landscapes. This shift is crucial in terms of human perception.

The Mesolithic environment, at least in lowland Britain, was one of woodland cover; human settlement took place in clearings, travel in cleared or natural passage-ways. The wider world was close at hand, viewed within a kind of rural neighbourhood with defined entrances and exits. Sound and smell were the key senses that surrounded the people; vision was constricted, and one would hear or smell something before it was seen[2]. Similarly, obstacles such as, say, a big rock in one’s way, were resolved in the short term, as they occurred – being unseen until one was close meant they could not be avoided. Experience and response were thus focussed and – without conferring a valued judgment – narrow. Concerns related primarily to family and community, and their sustenance. One’s immediate surroundings displayed a relentlessly cyclic nature as seasons and lives went along.

And then came the shift towards forest clearance, and farming. From estimated woodland cover of around 75% 6000 years ago, by 2500 years ago it was down to around 50%.[3] If a Mesolithic forest-dweller were suddenly transported a few hundred or thousand years forward in time, he or she would have had a profound perceptual shock. The world was further away, open to view across miles of landscape that, shorn of much of its fuzzy blanket of trees, was suddenly revealing its own shape. Smells were more distant, too, and shifted as the wind moved and changed direction. Bird calls were less present in volume and density. And the existence of other communities and settlements became clearer, as sight extended to villages, plumes of smoke and monuments. The primary sense had become vision, and the vision was expansive and, by revealing more of the world and bringing it within perceptual reach, was implicitly inclusive, whether your intentions were (at this stage) peaceful or aggressive; contact with others was enhanced, and that meant contact with other ideas and customs.[4]

Yet the ability to see what was ahead brought with it the opportunity to anticipate – long trackways could be created using some distant feature as a mark, and take into account rivers or other impediments. At the same time, things were less cyclical – trees did not impose such a seasonal imperative on the eye, erected stones endured while all around changed. The monuments and the now-visible lines of trackways implied a different understanding of time; development became more rooted in the human experience, as not just a cultural inevitability, but a material presence under human direction.

Where Mesolithic vision was fragmented, Neolithic vision was wide-ranging (not necessarily better or worse, just different). The shift in sensory experience, I argue, was as far-reaching as the development of farming and land management skills. It enabled the envisioning and creation of monuments, the organisation of large groups of people to realise them; and the monuments’ existence in turn furthered the connections now visible in the world, between places and people.

Over ensuing centuries, England remained broadly open, despite fluctuations in forest cover, and by the time of the Domesday Book, woodland cover was down to roughly 15% (today it is around 12%, up from a low of 5% at the start of the 20th century).[5] The primary sense remained sight, and the dominant culture we have today was built up around that. Metaphorically, too, culture was built up, developed into a settled landscape. Language reflected that – vision, construed as something more than eyesight, was and remains a virtue, embodied in those who can ‘see’ further than others. Nothing has shaken the march of vision since the Neolithic revolution.

What started these ruminations is the recent General Election in Britain. I suppose that calls for some explanation. Like many, I was shocked at the scale of support shown for the Conservatives and UKIP. I’m not a Labour supporter, especially not since New Labour, and I was one of those who felt that Labour would be more successful if it had a more overt leftist outlook; the SNP’s displacement of Labour in Scotland seemed to reaffirm that. Yet after the election, Tony Blair’s snide comment that a ‘traditional Labour Party took on a traditional Conservative Party, with the traditional result’ sounded like he might in some sense be right: English voters have shifted to the right (as Scottish voters have plainly indicated), towards self-seeking policies that are introspective and protective in the small scale. Semblances of 1980s Thatcherism have now become the centre ground of left-leaning parties, while the right seek to divest us all of the grand (though flawed both ideologically and practically) co-operative urge represented by the European Union, having already transferred most of the nation’s publicly-owned assets into private hands. What has happened to England, the country that executed its king in a democratic revolutionary fervour, the country where, lest we forget, Chartism and the Tolpuddle Martyrs are as much an expression of Englishness as Thatcherism and Empire?

It can, I think, be argued from a cultural perspective that the Neolithic shift towards reordering the sense hierarchy towards vision, and the implications of the expanded perception that it allowed, prompted the development of human consciousness from seeing itself as part of small self-sustaining units within small bounded spaces to seeing itself as part of a human network within larger and more accessible spaces. This could go two ways that were diametrically opposite but not mutually exclusive. One way was towards competition with others in this expanded network, an urge which can perhaps be seen as an outgrowth of the introspective protective priority inherent in subsistence-dependent small communities. This mode of thinking has never really vanished, as can be seen by the persistence of conflict, but on a positive note the trend of history has been towards unifying independent statelets (one way or another) which results in fewer potential conflict flashpoints. It’s hard to believe, but in recent centuries human lives have been less threatened by enemy action than at any time since the Bronze Age.

This ties in with the other direction impelled by vision – towards co-operation, as some realise the potential ‘thinktank’ benefits of sharing ideas and procedures. I’d like to think that in the West, and in England, subsequent social development has generally been a (albeit painfully slow) development of working with rather than against others, culminating in the social-democratic and co-operative movements that grew up in the 19th century and into the 20th.[6] And I see these ideals, exemplified perhaps by the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the popularity of Robin Hood legends, as taking place within an open-country context. This is not to say that these islands were devoid of woodland – Robin Hood, of course, is plainly located within deep forest cover – but that, as described in the statistics given above, forests and woods were islands in a sea of farmland and open country, as were towns, rather than the other way around. In other words, the primacy of vision yet prevailed.

The huge wars of the 20th century are something of a crux of England’s culture. While accepting that this is an over-simplification, a general point is that the 1914-18 conflict decimated the rural workforce and hastened the mechanisation of farming. A younger generation orphaned by the war found there was less employment to be had in the countryside. Urban industries took up the slack, urban populations grew, and strong self-awareness grew up among the industrial working class;[7] yet the countryside was but a step away; a strong strand of northern working-class socialism was expressed from the 1930s in hiking groups like the Marxist Clarion Ramblers, which were so active in the moorland battles with gamekeepers over the freedom to roam on open land (the value of open country to people’s well-being was recognised in the idea of the urban Green Belt, put forward in 1935, and ratified in law in 1947). Fascism was the almost-inevitable reaction to this left-socialist surge, and its defeat in World War Two, and the contribution of so many democratically-inclined ordinary men and women to that defeat, was a massive boon to co-operative democratic aspirations;[8] the post-war Labour government brought in a wave of nationalisations – the National Health Service in 1946, along with the Bank of England and the National Coal Board; the Green Belt and electricity generation in 1947; rail and canal transport in 1948; etc. This all took place in a country that was highly industrialised and urbanised, but where open country was accessible to non-rural and even inner-city residents, guaranteed to an extent by Green Belt legislation and accessed by an extensive public transport system. The vision trammelled by terraced streets and large looming factories into linear glimpses could be opened out with little difficulty. I argue that in Britain, this period after the war was a highpoint of vision in its metaphorical sense, projecting concepts of shared community benefit into material fact, even in a country bankrupted into rationing and hand-outs by the war effort. Peter Mandelson’s[9] 1998 remark to Hewlett-Packard executives, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, could hardly be further from the spirit of ’46 (though in fairness it should be noted that Mandelson finished that quote with “as long as they pay their taxes”), and the mood of England particularly, as shown in the 2015 election results, has shifted even further away (and wealth inequality grown) in the intervening 17 years.

So whatever has happened to Old England? Political attitudes have certainly been shifting rightwards south and east of the UK’s internal borders, support for personal material aggrandisement has been growing, as well as resistance to Johnny Foreigner. Where has the vision gone?

Well, here’s one take on the predicament. The post-war vision was soured by development in England’s green and pleasant land. The flip side of the 1960s social radicalism and musical experimentation that has become the most-played anthem on the media was the overhaul of traditional town planning – for instance, old structures replaced by concrete malls, narrow streets widened by demolition of old blocks, suburbs exponentially expanded outside the Green Belt as inner-city housing was cleared for offices, shops and other lifeless developments. But while a leafy suburb might supply the greenery, it cannot supply the vision, and it acts as a barrier to open country to those closer to town. Urban and suburban development creates parks and greens that are islands in an expanse of buildings and tarmac and act as accessible surrogates for open country; open country might as well appear on maps with schematics of paedophiles, murderers, toxic agricultural chemicals, ticks and soil-borne bacteria. Sight in everyday experience becomes constrained to the streets leading out from the neighbourhood, and the safe local greens and playgrounds; the stranger becomes a danger; a child’s life is exercised within parental sight. The children of recent decades grow up in small worlds; little wonder that the old neighbourhood rivalries are now often sufficiently threatening to deter children roaming outside certain known safe areas.[10]  In 2013, the UK’s urban population was 82% (of 63.1 million then, 64.6 million today), up from 78% (of 57 million) in 1984,[11] representing around 8 million more people in urban surroundings. Most of this development has been in England, and most of it in the S and SE. The average person’s experience is no longer field and farm and the nature that goes with it, but houses, routeways, bounded clearings and the quasi-domesticated nature that goes with that.

Our normative human environment in England has moved in six or seven thousand years from green forest to open country, and thence to urban jungle. It seems to me we have replaced our Mesolithic experience with something not so much different, and displaced the expansiveness of sight so that vision is no longer part of our urban and suburban experience. ‘My patch’ is now a familiar concept, whether of urban working-class gangs or urban middle-class escapees with their ‘not in my backyard’ mindset.

With that loss of real and metaphorical vision, people’s everyday concerns return to the experience described in the second paragraph of this article – the smell of garbage, the sound of traffic, improvement in living conditions, unseen dangers…. and the world outside our patch recedes. We are returning, it seems, to a quasi-Mesolithic consciousness, and its political corollary is populist introspective and self-protective materialism. Discuss.


[1]  Author’s note, Summer 2015: I wrote the following article after the unexpectedly large victory of the Conservative Party in the 2015 General Election. It is intended as a broad-brush ‘think piece’, and I am perfectly aware of the large proportion of the English, Scottish and Welsh electorate particularly who are not in any way characterised by Conservative policies, and whose ideas are thus unaccounted in this article. Nonetheless, nationally and internationally I believe there is evidence of cultural changes that may be assessed phenomenologically, as here. I am also aware that the argument I put forward can be extended in various ways, with additional examples, and can also be challenged – but that would take it to a length inappropriate for the magazine. We would welcome discussion of these issues on our NEReaders e-group. [Summer 2016: I uploaded this paper to this site on the day following the UK’s referendum decision to leave the EU].

[2] Though the other senses also leave their mark in language: something that doesn’t seem quite right ‘smells fishy’, some individuals and situations ‘leave a bad taste’, things ‘feel funny’, etc.

[3] Kevin Watts, ‘British forest landscapes: The legacy of woodland fragmentation’. 2006. http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/QJF_legacy_of_fragmentation_may06.pdf/$FILE/QJF_legacy_of_fragmentation_may06.pdf,,acc’d May 21, 2015.

[4] Vision would have probably been a pretty scary thing to be confronted with, evincing a fight-or-flight response: cf.responses of modern ‘uncontacted’ and quasi-Mesolithic tribes in S America.

[5] Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside. J M Dent 1986:76. Watts, 2006.

[6] Short-term setbacks such as fascism and totalitarian socialism are seen as temporary obstacles in this stream, arising from a reaction of the kind of vested interests (introspective protectionism exhaled) that underpin imperialism past and present.

[7] Not always positive or left-wing, as the world found in Germany’s National Socialism and Russia’s Stalinist Communism.

[8] A word which once pointed towards civic, democratic or spiritual improvements and in 2015 political discourse seems to relate to encouraging self-interest. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes “‘steadfast longing for a higher goal, earnest desire for something above one’ is recorded from c. 1600”, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=aspiration, acc’d May 24 2015.

[9] Trade & Industry Secretary to Tony Blair’s New Labour government. Quote appeared in the Financial Times, 23 Oct. 1998; see John Rentoul, http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/02/14/intensely-relaxed-about-people-getting-filthy-rich/, acc’d 22 May 2015.

[10] See http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/document-1355766991839/, acc’d 23 May 2015; http://wildinthecity.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Barriers-to-Outdoor-Play-and-Nature-Connection-for-Inner-City-Children-Institute-for-Outdoor-Learning-Horizons-Magazine-Winter-2013-Issue-63.pdf, acc’d 23 May 2015.

[11] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS, acc’d 23 May 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33266792, acc’d 25 June 2015.


Published in NE142 (Summer 2015) pp 20-23