Category Archives: East Anglia

Blessed Saint Margaret

This week, for family reasons, to King’s Lynn, and what was Saint Margaret’s and is now dignified as Lynn Minster.

Lynn deserves greater notice that it gets. Much of the town-core has many fine buildings, all the way back to the medieval period. Of the baker’s dozen of Grade 1 listed buildings in the town, the 15th century Hanseatic Warehouse would be a treasure anywhere. The late-17th century Customs House, and its position on the old harbour, has to qualify as gem-like: Nikolaus Pevsner was bowled over by ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’. From Tuesday Market (now, inevitably, a parking area, and the Minster, one walk through High Street and Nelson Street: Nelson Street (renamed sometime — presumably c.1805 — for the Norfolk Hero, but originally Lath Street) can be little more than 150 yards in length, but contains two dozen listed buildings.

Why has Lynn been so fortunate to preserve so much of its history?

First, I suppose, because the Luftwaffe (who were the chief instigator of post-War British architectural horrors) had far too many better targets. Second, because — after its brief span as a Hanseatic port — the town became a by-water. The clue is in the wikipedia entry:

The town centre is dominated by budget shops reflecting the spending power of much of the population.

The corollary of that is the #Brexit vote: across the district, over ⅔ voted Leave.

St Margaret of Antioch

A remarkable number of English churches (a list is here) are dedicated to one or other of the Saints Margaret, but the unhistorical virgin of Antioch gets most billing.

Which raises an obvious question.

My assumptions were the confusion with Marina of the Orthodox Church, also, from the Latin, the sea.

Then Margaret, for being an impious young lady, was sent to mind sheep. Which gives the wool-trade connection.

But then, I belong to a generation which had yet to develop feminist studies. So I have to go with the mood: her cult grew after the first millennium because invoking her was a charm against the dangers of child-birth.

The cult of Margaret of Antioch appears, too, in the town arms. Legend has it that Margaret was devoured by a dragon, but, when she produced her crucifix, the dragon’s belly split apart, and she stepped out unharmed. For this miracle, she was — so the story goes — beheaded.

Which side are you on?

Back in the Minister, high above where the rood screen should be, is a royal arms. They are those of Charles II. And thereby hangs another tale.

The two Members of Parliament for Lynn were Thomas Toll and John Percival, both puritans. We can presume thereby a strong faction of the goodly burgers of the town sided against Charles I. By the nature of business, the parliamentarians were based in the urban trading and commercial classes. Added to which, there would have been considerable import of subversive protestant materials and tracts  — the illicit pornography of the time — from the Low Counties. The Norfolk countryside, however, was more royalist — as one might expect among the unenlightened land-owning gentry. The royalists had their supporters, too, in the population of Lynn. The result was, to put it mildly, civil commotion, with the royalists coming out on top. The royalist leader was Sir Hamon L’Estrange, who emerged from his feudal base at Hunstanton as “governor” of King’s Lynn.

During the summer of 1643, the parliamentarians had mopped up Lincolnshire and were ready to move on Lynn, by now the only royalist hold-out across East Anglia. Put on alert, royalist Lynn strengthened the defences. The Earl of Manchester rolled up with his besiegers, secured the roads and bridges into Lynn, and began occasional bombardments from across the river. On 3rd September one cannonball made a direct hit on the west window of St Margarets. Another ball was turned up in Nelson Street, and now features (as right) over the entrance of Hampton Court.

Manchester had the water supply to the town diverted, but Lynn held out on the hope of relief from Newcastle’s royalists across the Wash. Manchester issued his ultimatum on 15th September, ordering the defenders to remove women and children. After three weeks defying the siege, Lynn surrendered, and at day-break on 16th September 1643 the parliamentarians occupied the town.

Come 1660, the church-wardens of St Margaret’s. Mathias Welles and Thomas Thetford (making sure their names were prominent), rushed to make amends. Hence the royal arms high on the chancel arch. Jollier lions and unicorns are hard to find:

 

 

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Filed under culture, East Anglia, History, Norfolk, travel

Monkey business

… and so, from man’s inhumanity to man, I mused on the curious story of the Hartlepool monkey. If only to escape from the more immediate topics of recent days (as in the re-phrasing of the traditional Chinese curse, “Mrs May, you live in exciting times”).

Legend has it that, during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was caught in a storm and wrecked off the Tees estuary. A monkey, dressed in a mock military uniform, was washed ashore. The locals (allegedly “fishermen”, but as likely shore-watchers or — crudely — wreckers) had never seen a Frenchman, held an impromptu court, declared the monkey a French spy, and hanged the creature from a convenient ship’s mast.

In my more-athletic, less-gouty youth, when we played one of the Hartlepool rugby teams, we referred to them derisively as “monkey-hangers”. Like all the best insults, it was adopted by the insulted: H’Angus the Monkey (as right) became the mascot of the soccer team — and Stuart Drummond, the occupant of the money-costume, was elected as the town’s mayor in 2002. It was H’Angus/Drummond’s other intrusion into the public consciousness: he had twice been escorted from the pitch for simulating sex with a blow-up doll.

All this appears on wikipedia, but the legend of the Hartlepool monkey has too many loose-ends (no dark humour intended) to be left there.

Ned Corvan was a mid-19th century music-hall artist and impresario in the North-East. He produced a series of song-books before his early death from TB. One of his songs was The Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O!  This is adduced as the first public outing of the legend. There are doubts about Corvan’s claim to originality, though.

Nominal confusions

Corvan learned his trade as an entertainer with Billy Purvis’s Victoria Theatre. Purvis was born near Penicuik, just south of Edinburgh, and migrated to Newcastle — so the east coast of Scotland may be a significant connection. Then there is the earlier Blind Willie Purvis.

Life is too short to unscramble which, but one or other Purvis had a song from Aberdeenshire, which is a clear analogue of the The Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O! —

Eence a ship sailed round the coast
And a’ the men in her was lost,
Burrin’ a monkey up a post —
So the Boddamers hanged the monkey-O

Pauline Cordiner’s blog credibly claims the Hartlepool monkey story was transplanted from Boddam, near Peterhead. And makes the connections.

Powder-monkeys

All the attempts to “explain” the story I find questionable. One sinister “explanation” (and there’s more here than meets the eye) is that ship’s boys were the “powder-monkeys”, and it was one of them who was the victim. And, we may see, for good reason.

Even this far, we already have pegs on which to hang any number of hats, and any odd theory. Bella Bathurst (page 262 in my paperback copy) makes a calculation:

… it is not Cornwall or the Pentland Firth which has the dubious honour of the highest number of shipwrecks per mile of coast. It is Durham, a tiny county with a tiny sliver of coastline, with 43.8 losses per mile. Further south, Norfolk has 25.6 and Suffolk 25, both of which make south Cornwall’s twenty wrecks per mile seem almost modest.

A law with unintended consequences

Add in the basis of “salvage”.

What immediately follows is from Bella Bathurst, but I see remarkable, even uncanny coincidences with Donald G. Shomette’s Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters Along the Delmarva Coast (see especially page 125).

In 1236 Henry III of England decreed that an owner of wrecked goods could claim them, within three months of a wreck. However, the same rule added that, as long as any man or beast escaped alive, the ship was not truly a wreck. This was repeated by Edward I’s First Statute of Westminster. The intent of the law, presumably as proposed by ship-owners, was to prevent the seizure and destruction of vessels that could be re-floated. The paradoxical result was to create a motive for murder. As long as the odd survivor was around, wreckers could not claim their expected dues. That Bella Bathurst  book (page 11) has:

The ‘man or beast’ ruling persisted for many centuries in different forms, and it was not until 1771 that it was finally and explicitly repealed. Even then, its effects lingered on in the common lore of the land. In more remote parts of the country, nineteenth- and even early-twentieth-century  wreckers were supposedly drowning their victims according to the old rule.

A local link

I was very young, probably still at junior school, when I came across a tattered book about East Anglia and its curiosities. It included a bit of doggerel:

Cromer crabs,
Runton dabs.
Beeston babies, 
Sheringham ladies,
Weybourne witches, 
Salthouse ditches, 
and the Blakeney people
stand on the steeple,
and crack hazelnuts
with a five-farthing beetle. 
Blakeney bulldogs, 
Morston dodmen, 
Binham bulls,
Stiffkey trolls.
And Wells bite-fingers.

From east-to-west, that’s a recital of the North Norfolk coast.

Even in the earlier period, before those small harbours silted up, there were no havens for larger vessels between Lynn on the Wash and Yarmouth at the mouth of the Yare. And certainly none one might wish to tackle in a pounding nor’easter.

So, two explanations there:

  • a “beetle” is Old English bíetel, an implement for beating: the kind of thing still used for levelling paving stones. Or used as a weapon — as John Lydgate (a Suffolk man, from … err … Lidgate) noted in The Pylgremage of the Sowle:

Somme were brayned with betels and somme beten with staues.

  • If a ship-wrecked corpse needed rings removed, the people of Wells are here alleged to resort to amputation by mouth. As one native-born, I’d demonstrate.

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Filed under Britain, East Anglia, History, Norfolk, Wells-next-the-Sea

Another op’nin

The 2001 London revival: It was superb. I had already been treated to the production on Broadway. It was already transferring to London, even before 9/11 had devastated New York theatre-attendances. So I paid real money to revisit it at the Victoria Palace

Few musicals beat that opening. But there are only half-a-dozen musicals worthy to start alongside Kiss Me, Kate —and at least one more has Cole Porter’s name over the title.

I can get something of the same thrill opening a new book for the first time.

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend…

… Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. Thank you, Groucho: don’t call us. We’ll call you.

Buying, on spec, a new book by a  previously-untried, even unknown writer is itself a venture.

I pluck the book from the pile or the shelf — perhaps because the cover or the title means something to me. I flick a few pages. I either return the book whence it came, rejected, or reach for the wallet and the plastic.

I did that last Friday.

iuMy two acquisitions were Ian Sansom’s Westmorland Alone and Tom Blass, The Naked Shore.

There is a tangential connection between those two.

The first in Sansom’s series was The Norfolk Mystery. Obviously a Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred type would be weak in the head not to snap at that. So I did, and found it wholesome — but not really much more — enough to go for the second in the series, Death in Devon.  Which I found harder going: the arch references to Arthur Mee and all those 1930s “cosy” teccies seemed to be wearing, and wearing a bit thin. Still, I went for this third one; and it went down quite nicely. If nothing else, it overcame the imminent reading-block that was sub-symptom of a winter chill.

So that was a re-visit. The “new” one was —

9781408815496Blass

The connexion with the Tom Blass is also Norfolk (which features very slightly) and East Anglia more generally.

Ir reads very well, rather disconnectedly — but this isn’t a straight narrative. Blass shifts, idiosyncratically, from space to place, topic to topic, encounter to encounter. And then will return whence he came, a hundred pages of more later. The book tends, obviously, to the gossipy. I find little wrong or objectionable about that.

Above all, The Naked Shore is delightfully filled with small and informative detail. Here’s a very early one:

In Whitby once, among the stones of the ‘Dracula’ abbey, I was struck by the starkness of the difference between the accents of a visiting family from Newcastle and those of the natives. Geordie’s origins lies with the Teutonic Angles, hence ‘gan’ — as in ‘gan down toon’, from the German gehen for ‘go’, while their Yorkshire hosts’ linguistic ancestry lay further north (arse, bairn, dollop and flit all have Norse heritage). Some fifteen hundred years after their arrival, fifty miles of English coast still reflect ancient ethnic differences, the origins of which lie on the far side of the North Sea.

Blass returns another half-dozen times to Whitby, at one stage as part of the strange  class-divides between seaside resorts, even (as page 108):

Today the middle classes that seek out the evocative beaches of North Norfolk at Holkham and Blakeney studiously avoid not-dissimilar shorelines close by.

I’ll go with that: Wells is neatly sandwiched between those two “evocative beaches” — indeed, I challenge any in-comer to know where Holkham beach ends and Wells begins. I’d put it around where the old Coastguard look-out was. By the time, heading east, one reaches the beach-huts, one definitively is in Wells. And the reason for the “social” difference (consider, too house prices)? Wells had — before blasted Beaching — a train line. And a bit further back, GER/LNER ‘tripper’ specials all the way from London’s Liverpool Street. That, and the whiff of whelks being loaded into the guard’s van lowered the tone.

Note from the above, that although may dot from topic to topic, the book comes with a useful index for playing dot-to-dot.

A comparator

61ieuy24gfl-_uy250_Yes, we’ve been in these parts quite recently.

Only a couple of years ago, Michael Pye did nicely by, and nicely out of The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We AreThat’s an equally subjective account, but organised on more orthodox — even “historical” lines. It’s a “deeper” book, in many respects a “better” book; but one more concerned with — as the title suggests — the anthropology, even sociology, of the North Sea coasts and peoples. So it is more rooted in what we used to be able to term, without apology or explanation, “the Dark Ages”.

I shall be keeping both on my shelves: not as rivals, but as complements.

 

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Filed under Britain, Detective fiction, East Anglia, fiction, History, Norfolk, reading, Wells-next-the-Sea

What do you expect but a grunt?

Political Scrapbook has picked up a gem from the Thurrock local news-sheet:

Thurrock UKIP leader on drink drive charge

THE leader of the UKIP group on Thurrock Council has been charged with drink driving after a late night incident at a fundraising function attended by national party leader Nigel Farage and MEP Tim Aker. 

Cllr Robert Ray was arrested in the early hours of last Friday morning after a dinner at the Orsett Hall Hotel.

A statement by Essex police said: “A man has been charged with drink driving after being arrested at Orsett. Robert Ray, 65, of Purfleet Road, Aveley, was stopped by officers at Orsett Hall at 2.15am on Friday, 13 June. He has been bailed and will appear at Basildon Magistrates’ Court on 1 July.

A little Ray of Sonnenschein

The “added-value” Political Scrapbook appends is the dubious history of said Councillor Robert Ray:

Ray

So, all together now!

Or, to spell it out:

One evening last October, when I was far from sober,
And dragging home a load with manly pride,
My feet began to stutter, and I fell down in the gutter,
And a pig came up and parked right by my side.

Then I mumbled, “It’s fair weather when good comrades get together”,
Till a lady passing by was heard to say,
“You can tell a man that boozes by the playmates that he chooses”.
Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.

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Filed under Britain, broken society, East Anglia, folk music, Political Scrapbook, UKIP

The worst of Times

There’s a letter, indeed the featured one, bold type ‘n’ all, in today’s Times.

On-line (though not in print) the correspondence is sub-headed:

The metropolitan liberal elite show contempt for the population of rural England and the democratic choice some of them have made

It is all a response to a piece by David Aaronovitch. As far as Malcolm’s comprehension goes, Aaronovitch was presenting the “modernist” case, particularly in one respect:

Prime Minister’s Questions … had begun with a warning about the almost imminent collapse of A&E services in England and bad unemployment figures across the UK. Yet of the six Conservative MPs who stood to ask questions, no less than five were talking about when to have a referendum on Europe. They might as well have been in Caracas.

But they are all MPs and all honourable men, I thought, so this difference in perception is probably mutual. Where they sit for in Essex, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire or Wiltshire, the EU may indeed be more important than it is to me in London. On questions such as immigration, perhaps my metropolitan attitude seems as peculiar to them as their parochialism does to me.

And it suddenly occurred to me that this difference in perception helps to explain the divided nature of Boris Johnson. When he is being touted (as periodically he is) by right-wing Tories as an acceptable successor to the backsliding Cameron, Boris can appear something of a shire hero. But when he’s actually talking seriously about the future of Britain, he’s a full member of the metropolitan elite.

Yes, Malcolm thinks he has a grasp on that.

So here comes Michael Patterson of Swineshead, Lincs:

Sir, David Aaronovitch seems shocked by the realisation that, outside London and the great cities and university towns, there exists an England that does not buy into the cosy liberal certainties of “an outward-looking, open-minded polity” (“Unshackle London from the backward shires”, Opinion, May 16).

He cites Boston, Lincolnshire, where the immigrant population — virtually all from EU countries — is now about 10 per cent. An unremarkable proportion in a capital city perhaps, but in this traditional market town a change that has come about within ten years, putting enormous pressure on housing, schools, the NHS and policing.

Mr Patterson suggests whom to blame:

[Aaronovitch] is largely right to suggest that these immigrants are filling agricultural jobs that locals are no longer willing to do. He seems to view the latter’s interests as unimportant in comparison with an immigration policy that is bringing about a radical change in the character of British society without the explicit support of the people.

Hold your horse, Mike!

That’s not the whole story, at all, at all.

The essential fault, if there is one, lies with agribusiness, and — at one remove — its unwholesome dependency on the big supermarket chains. Which makes us consumers and our demand for cheap food — at two removes — also culpable.

The economics mean that the whole food-chain relies on the gang-masters. Let’s hat-tip another Tory, worthy in one respect: the MP for Boston and Skegness is Mark Simmonds, Mr Patterson’s elected representative. Simmonds may feel a hunted man with the UKIP surge on his patch; but he deserves respect for his extended campaign to make gang-masters fully responsible.

Lincolnshire immigrants

Malcolm feels a letter to The Times coming on. Like all his other great thoughts, it will likely go unpublished.

He would wish to express sympathy to Lincolnshire folk threatened by alien incursions.

In his North Norfolk youth he recalls similar griefs being expressed.

Even after thirty years in the neighbourhood, one particular social out-cast was regularly denounced as a “furrener” [Sc. “foreigner”]. He was a yeller-belly, an incomer from Lincolnshire, one of the scab-labourers brought in by the local farmers to break the farm-workers’ strike of April 1923.

What goes around, comes around.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., David Aaronovitch, East Anglia, History, Norfolk, Racists, Times, Tories., UKIP, Wells-next-the-Sea

Sodden and unkind

Hilaire Belloc lauded The South Country. He meant, exclusively, Sussex. In his first four verses he slags off, successive:

Lincolnshire… the Midlands 
That are sodden and unkind …

The men that live in North England 
I saw them for a day: 
Their hearts are set upon the waste fells, 
Their skies are fast and grey …

The men that live in West England 
They see the Severn strong, 
A-rolling on rough water brown 
Light aspen leaves along.

Then, Friday, The Times [£] property porn section, bricks and mortar, did a piece on the ancient city of Lincoln, headlined:

A discreet Midlands gem

Lincoln has many commendable features: beautiful period properties, a castle, and impressive cathedral, thriving high street, great transport links, beautiful countryside, two universities, and good schools. Yet this corner of the East Midlands is surprisingly little known.

Pause for consideration: take Hungate out of town, through Wragby (decent enough, quiet, good pubs) and Louth (just as a small town should be, sober old brick, with the church spire to guide you) to Maplethorpe (actually, not the nicest destination, but still) … lo! the great North Sea, all of 42 miles, and a bit over an hour of driving. So: Midlands?

Well, arguably so, even on wikipedia:

The Midlands is an area comprising central England that broadly corresponds to the early medieval Kingdom of Mercia

The Midlands does not correspond to any current administrative area, and there is therefore no strict definition. However, it is generally considered to include the counties of DerbyshireGloucestershireHerefordshireLeicestershireNorthamptonshireNottinghamshireOxfordshireRutland,ShropshireStaffordshireWarwickshire, the West Midlands and WorcestershireLincolnshire is considered by some part of the Midlands but generally excluded, on account of its extensive coastline.

NLD LOGOThe main reason for having Lincolnshire in “the Midlands” is officialdom. It is administered through the East Midlands Government regional Office, which seems in large part to be because this is the European Parliament constituency. About the only other justification is that “Notts, Lincs and Derby ” is how rugby operates in the three counties. Of which the kindest thing to be said is the NLD logo (oak-tree, Lincoln imp and Derby ram) must have been conceived in a very Goth moment, but adequates describes their approach to the game.

Yeller bellies

An old Norfolk character taught Malcolm to know Lincolnshire folk as yeller-bellies, and as a thoroughly rackety and unpleasant lot. That last prejudice seemed to be a pained memory of scab labour imported from across the tribal barrier to break the agricultural strike of April 1923. In Norfolk old grievances fester.

Rod Collins (who does a fine local website) gives an exhaustive account of where the moniker may have originated:

Military Connection
The Royal North Lincolnshire Militia officer wore bright yellow waistcoats
The Lincolnshire Regiment: They had some yellow facings on their uniforms etc

Stage Coaches
Stage coaches that used to run in Lincolnshire had bodies painted yellow

Anglo-Saxons
Elloe: this and associated terms linked to the Saxons and Celts gives us Ye Elloe Bellie

Associated Others
The etymology has also been associated with frogs, Fen-Dwellers, folk tales and folk lore all of which sound somewhat less likely.

For me the first three above are the most likely, the many others really strike me as being ‘also rans’
The military origin is the one I’d wager my modest hoard on were I forced to do so although the stage coach seems reasonable as well.

He takes the usage back to:

A person born in the Fens of Lincolnshire (from the yellow sickly complexion of persons residing in marshy situations)
Date 1839, taken from William Holloway’s A Dictionary of Provincialisms.

It has ever older provenance. Francis Grose’s  A provincial glossary: with a collection of local proverbs, and popular superstitions has the term in 1787:

Yellow bellies. This is an appellation given to persons born in the Fens, who, it is jocularly said, have yellow bellies, like their eels.

That’s sufficiently archae-etymological for Malcolm. And means a citizen of Lincoln is not a yeller-belly.

A Malcolmian aside

Though a Wexford man might well be. There’s John Keegan (apparently of the “Queen’s County”), from the first half of the 19th century (though his Legends and poems now first collected seemed unpublished before 1907). One chapter (page 361ff) is The Orangemans Tale, A Reminiscence of 1798, a story of misplaced love between the social orders. That includes the expression:

 I would rather dig my daughter’s grave … than see her tied to Lanty Wolfe, or any other yellow belly of the County Wexford.

Malcolm feels a “Not-so-great and not-so-good” posting, on the topic of Sir Caesar Colclough, impending here.

Colonia Domitiana Lindensium in partes tres divisa est

Like Gaul. They are Lindsey, Holland and Kesteven — which were separate county councils between 1888 and 1974.

Domesday Book ‘Lindsey’ was the whole county, but the latter division of Lincolnshire made it the area around Lincoln itself. Kesteven was the ten wapentakes (Malcolm has been panting to use that term again) lying towards the south and west, while Holland is the south-east part — much reclaimed from the sea. We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion (as Malcolm was taught at school) that there is any connection between Lincolnshire Holland and the work of the great engineer Cornelius Wasterdyk Vermuyden: hoil is a perfectly-good Early English word for ‘low-lying’ (though the connection with the Low Countries is self-evident).

Of the three, Kesteven is quite happily “East Midlands”, and Holland tends towards “East Anglia”. Lindsey is hybrid — the northern end is now Humberside, by official definition anyway.

DHL and Lincoln Cathedral

Chapter 7 of The Rainbow: Anna and Brangwyn visit Lincoln —

They passed up the steep hill, he eager as a pilgrim arriving at the shrine. As they came near the precincts, with castle on one side and cathedral on the other, his veins seemed to break into fiery blossom, he was transported.

They had passed through the gate, and the great west front was before them, with all its breadth and ornament.

“It is a false front,” he said, looking at the golden stone and the twin towers, and loving them just the same. In a little ecstasy he found himself in the porch, on the brink of the unrevealed. He looked up to the lovely unfolding of the stone. He was to pass within to the perfect womb.

Then he pushed open the door, and the great, pillared gloom was before him, in which his soul shuddered and rose from her nest. His soul leapt, soared up into the great church. His body stood still, absorbed by the height. His soul leapt up into the gloom, into possession, it reeled, it swooned with a great escape, it quivered in the womb, in the hush and the gloom of fecundity, like seed of procreation in ecstasy.

She too was overcome with wonder and awe. She followed him in his progress. Here, the twilight was the very essence of life, the coloured darkness was the embryo of all light, and the day. Here, the very first dawn was breaking, the very last sunset sinking, and the immemorial darkness, whereof life’s day would blossom and fall away again, re-echoed peace and profound immemorial silence.

That implied eroticism is why The Times‘s blathering about an impressive cathedral and other trivialities is sodden-and-unkind, cheap-and-nasty property porn. And does no justice to one of the finest locations in the land.

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Divided loyalties: being Hiberno-English

A long while since (5th September 2008, since you didn’t ask), Malcolm put up a post on being Anglo-Irish. For some reason, that still attracts a fair number of “hits”. This, then, may be the logical  counter-part.

J’ai deux amours

Josephine Baker famously had two loves:

J’ai deux amours
Mon pays et Paris.

If Freda McDonald — barely two generations from slavery — had a hard life, growing up in St Louis, she found fame, fortune and a distinguished personal history as Josephine Baker in her adopted France.

Therein lies the rub

In this 21st century, many of us have two identities: one on the birth certificate, and one in the life we live. There’s little particularly “new” in this:

  • Arthur Wellesley got himself born in what is now the Merrion Hotel, Dublin — but is the archetypal English Iron Duke;
  • David Lloyd-George arrived in the world in the Manchester suburbs, but is forever “the Welsh Wizard”;
  • Éamon de Valera originated in New York, but re-made an Ireland in his own image;

— and so on.

Malcolm’s eldest has a surfeit of air-miles and is quadri-lingual in English and American, Tottenham and Noo Joisey. Even daughter number 2, the Earth Mother, manages to switch effortlessly between south Saxon RP and narrow-vowelled Anglian North Yorkshire.

Your nationalism quiz

Yesterday’s

Times

,

at its fullest fluffy Murdochian populism, was rattling on:

A new version of the Life in the United Kingdom handbook, published yesterday, aims to prepare would-be Britons for the citizenship test. The guide focuses on history, tradition and what it means to be British and has ditched more mundane sections on the practicalities of life in the UK …

The 180-page guide, costing £12.99 is unashamedly patriotic, with a red, white and blue cover and pictures of the Queen and of crowds waving the Union flag at the Last Night of the Proms and on the Mall. Sir Winston Churchill is pictured alongside quotes from his wartime speeches but only two post-war prime ministers receive separate biographies: Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

The new edition finds a place for Monty Python, Morcambe and Wise and Torvill and Dean, but migrants will also be expected to know about important figures of English literature including Sir Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K.Rowling.

Pass the sick-bag, Alice.

On the other hand, the side-bar was a Commentary by Matthew Syed, and it went a way to re-entering normality. Syed refers back to background:

My father arrived on these shores in 1966 as a Muslim, Pakistani, and harbouring deep suspicions about British cultural assumptions. Almost half a century later, he is a monarchist, Radio 4 aficionado and just about the most patriotic Brit I know. With the exception of his Christianity, to which he converted, Britishness is perhaps the most important and cherished affiliation of his life.

My maternal grandfather, who died last week at 98, lived a very different life to my father. Born in the Rhondda Valley at the outset of the Great War, he worked down the pits from 14 then spent a lifetime serving others, first at a home for deprived children and then as warden of an old people’s home. the one thing he shared with dad was a deep love of nation, but he interpreted Britishness in a fundamentally different way.

Not deep. Not philosophical. But neither, reading between the lines of that Times piece, is Life in the United Kingdom [£12.99 at all good bookshops, or around £7.99 if you’re Brit enough to order on-line — a nationality test in itself]. Syed scores by being domestic, humane, direct, down to earth — even dignified, in the best sense. All the good things the official line seems to miss.

For an example, today’s Clare in the Community (Harry Venning’s unfailingly reliable weekly cartoon for the Guardian‘s Society section) is an instant education in ‘Britishness’, and — unlike the nostrums in Life in the United Kingdom — transcends the regional cultural divides that Syed glosses in that final phrase above:

Clare in the community cartoon

What are little boys made of?

Everyone differs: we are an unregimented, frequently-bolshie and mutually-incompatible lot, each with our peculiar passions. What is it that makes Malcolm’s academic and professorial Little Brother traipse out fortnightly to stand with perhaps 5,000 other stalwarts and watch Notts County? The heterogeneousness is an essential part of belonging anywhere on this archipelago.

Unlike Syed, Malcolm was denied personal knowledge of either of his grandfathers: one tends his plot eternally in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No. 2; the other died of miner’s lung around the time the (first) Great Slump arrived. Did either of those have a deep love of nation, an overwhelming sense of being “British”?

As for the royalist thing, Malcolm recalls (and can date) 15th February, 1952. He doesn’t remember the funeral of George VI — apart from the oddest early-adopter, television hadn’t penetrated north Norfolk. He does know it was a day of national mourning, and so a Friday off school. Dear Old Dad spent much of the day double-digging the long vegetable garden, and none too chuffed. When pre-adolescent Malcolm murmured a triteness about it being “Sad about the King”, the parental snort was followed by “Why, what did he ever do for me?”

Was that the germ of a young republican?

Two loves? Well, two affections.

For Malcolm neither north Norfolk nor dirty Dublin quite amount to “‘loves”. The former has changed, not wholly for the better, over the years as the have-yotties and weekenders made the coast a transplant of Camden Town — Hampstead-by-the-Sea is further south, at Southwold. Dublin has changed even more, though there remain vestiges of the old scruffiness. West Cork has gone the way of the gentrified English coast. Once away from the “gold coast”, the rest of County Down is not wholly spoiled — but could one transplant and enjoy living there?

Despite all the confusions, that double pull recurs and endures. After all, when GCE English History and English Literature immediately leads into the Irish Leaving Certificate, a cultural trauma persists for life.

Par eux toujours,
Mon coeur est ravi.

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