The United Kingdom - also known as Great Britain, the British Isles or again...to our Gallic cousins across the Channel... the "Perfid Albion" - is, according to the encyclopedias, an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe; is the home for some 60 million people - about 50 million of which live in England - is the third most populated island on Earth and so on and so forth... but to me it's my history, my culture and my heritage, my roots!
And why Great Britain??? why Great? Great as in an empire over which the sun never set or Great as in Britannia major ("Greater Britain"), as opposed to Britannia minor ("Lesser Britain"), the continental region, corresponding approximately with modern Brittany?
Difficult of capture thousands of years of history, culture and way of life in a handful of words and images. Personally, my favourite work on the subject is by Winston Churchill however even his works "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples" only starts with Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 BC, not earlier, Stonehenge having been carbon dated back to approximately 2300 BC.
As for me and the reason for my writings here I decided to take my son to England in 1999 to show him a bit of this history, culture and heritage I am so proud of and bathe him, in the space of a couple of weeks, in what is essentially his as well... a traditional father, son ritual thing, with the crossing of the Channel by ferry being the ritualistic crossing of the river Styx.
I wanted to show him some of the more remarkable, mythical and emblematic sites of England (like Stamford Bridge?), taking some ad hoc and rather banal - not yet digital - photos along the way, starting of course with the legendary Whites cliffs of Dover.
The Lock and Key of the Kingdom
How to explain the White cliffs of Dover to someone who has no conception of their historical value to the English? Contrary to the Statue of Liberty - for millions one of the first glimpses of hope after ocean voyages from around the world - the White cliffs have, for the last 1000 years, been a symbol of resistance and not reception, successfully and successively resisting the Spanish, the French and of course the Germans twice, first the Kaiser and then the Corporal, as immortalized in several films such as the 1969 film, the Battle of Britain, starring Sir Laurence Olivier.
To the British, the White cliffs of Dover are more on a par with the great wall of China than the Maginot or Sigfried lines... Forever immortalised in the 1941 song "There'll Be Blue Birds Over The White Cliffs of Dover" the White cliffs of Dover symbolized the impregnable fortress island the British Isles had been until the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994... not for nothing Dover was known as the Lock and Key of the Kingdom!
An unjust example of how certain had to prove their worth and mettle while others could simply pick the lock of the Kingdom and walk in. In 2004 after nearly 200 years of valiantly proving their worth and mettle for King and country, not theirs', the Gurkhas were finally granted the right to settle in the UK. Now, with the opening of the tunnel or "Chunnel" as the British call it, Paris is 2 hours away from London by train and any asylum seeker ready to risk the ride hidden in the back of a lorry can make it into the UK.
Perhaps that's a sweeping statement but ask the average Brit today. They would surely like to know why anyone would want to come to such a grubby, grey, overcrowded little island in the first place! No wonder that some of our cousins from across the puddle see an overloaded UK sinking slowly beneath the waves in the not too distant future, like some overcrowded Indonesian ferry.
Well I'm sure that certain "Visitors" to the UK - in search of their own personal El Dorado - would willingly brave complex customs procedures in the States and not continue braving wet and windy English summers days on their way to the local Job Centre... as I am sure certain Brits would gladly chip in and help the visitor on their way, not out of spite or bad intention but out of genuine good will and the wish to make things better for all. "Ah", I hear the reader say, "yet more of that world-famous "Monty Pythonish" 02nd degree English humour"... yes, of course, why not.t.
NB. A few years ago I would have hesitated writing the above but after visiting places like Japan, Kyrgyzstan and China I confirm that it is not second-rate nationalism just simple pragmatism, there is a limit to everything.
Of Kings and Wizards, Myths and Legends
Literally magical, the British Isles are full of tales, myths and legends. From the pre-druid ceremonies of Stonehenge , the legend of Arthur...and of Merlin - the legend says Merlin will awake when England will be in great peril - of Avalon, the lady of the lake and Lancelot, of Queen Boadicea, of medieval witches, bloodthirsty kings and plotting cardinals, of fairies, pixies, water sprites and giants straddling hills, of headless horses riding over Dartmoor, of demised dukes, of thousands of tales of devils and valiant vicars and parishioners, of ghosts and spirits, of unfaithful wives forever walled in towers*, of beheaded Queens in "The Tower", of knights and crusaders, of Loch Ness... and Glen Coe... but unfortunately nothing, absolutely nothing about dragon, much less a St George, Roman soldier of Palestinian origin whose legend was later appropriated by returning crusaders and who finally became patron of the English in the 12th century.
*One such tale of an unfaithful wife forever walled in a tower is the tale of Betsy Grimbal in Tavistock Devon. The tale varies depending on the source but the legend says that the phantom of Betsy Grimbal appears just before a national disaster or catastrophe. Tavistock, Devon, where the tale takes place, is the origin of several famous legends such as the tale of the ghost of one Lady Howard who rides through Tavistock in a coach drawn by headless horses preceded by a big black hound (not related to the Hound of the Baskervilles of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle). There is also the tale of the Duke of Bedford who was found shot dead in 1953 and who haunts his old Hunting Lodge, Endsleigh House at Milton Abbot, Devon. I know, I had a close encounter with his Lordship one winter's evening in 1973 while I was living there at the time.
Enhanced and embellished by distance, hazy memories and films such as "Chariots of Fire" or "If" each Englishman, especially ex-patriots, has their own particular interpretation, perception or vision of what England is or should be. Their own personal Avalon or "New Jerusalem" that not even trips, regrettably infrequent, or even the diverse multimedia facilities available today do anything to change.
So what is this New Jerusalem? Referred to in the Book of Revelations New Jerusalem is literally heaven on earth. One religious movement called British Israelism, which reached its apogee towards the end of the 19th century and claimed the English were the lost tribe of Israel, appropriated the symbolism and promoted the idea and belief that God created England as the 02nd garden of Eden and all who abode therein, in his image.
Apparently, God in his infinite wisdom decided not to over do things and graced the British Isles with the weather it has: Full of opposites (warm temperate weather conditions, influenced by the Gulf stream, to the west and Polar winds and Arctic conditions to the North), stereotypes (because it rains so much the English have the greenest and best-kept lawns in the world) and contradictions (statistics show that London receives less than 650 millimetres (25.6 in) a year, which is less than Rome, Sydney or New York City).
Fortunately, a more poetic, and reasonable appropriation was found thanks to the William Blake ode of the same name "Jerusalem". It became the stirring (we don't say patriotic in England, do we) rallying hymn sung by legions of British schoolboys (your humble servant among them) and enthusiasts at the last night of the Proms, along with other typically British hymns such as Rule Britannia, Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore*, Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No.1(Land of Hope and Glory), Auld Lang Syne and of course the National Anthem.
At a third of the size of France as mentioned above, the United kingdom is the third most densely populated island in the world after Java and Honshu, Japan. But even so, as in Japan, there are places in the country that when you're there you feel as though you are alone in the world. For example, standing on the cliff top at Tintagel looking out into the Atlantic on a stormy day or walking over Dartmoor, in Devon, watching the rain sweep over the remnants of ancient volcanoes long since reduced to piles of rocks, locally called Tors. Suddenly the rain stops, the clouds part, the sun chases the clouds away over the fields and lights up a church tower nestling in the copse of a small valley. All at once it's a different place, the heart sings and you know this is your own special corner of the planet, your own special vision of what England should be.
You may notice that I talk about Dartmoor with a certain attachment. That's normal. That's where I hail from, where my roots are, and that comes from someone whose family has, over the generations, acquired a mix of Scottish and Welsh heritage but who remains, above all, a Briton in the true historical and ethnic sense of the word. That explains the ancestry.
Concerning character, the people from Dartmoor are hardy, solitary, self-sustaining, independent, introvert... you keep yourself to yourself and mind your business but a fire is always lit and a meal awaits the wayfarer in need.
And so it was that during this 1999 trip I showed my son as much as I could of the history, culture and heritage that is his. My son is a European, a pure product of pan-European union and may feel at home in 3 or 4 western European countries. But for me it's important for him to know he is at home, and at ease, in one specific place on this over-populated planet, and personally I was proud when he asked me one day for a copy of my birth certificate so he could exercise his right of birth and apply for a British passport. When distances recede and cardinal points disappear (and the golden emblem on one's passport is fading from having been pulled out of pockets all too often) it's reassuring to know that there is a place on this earth you can call home and say this is where my roots are. For me, this is Tavistock, Dartmoor, Devon, England.