My book of short fiction, England and Other Stories (2014), was written with no prescience of what’s now known as ‘Brexit’, but its title suggests scepticism — what is ‘England’, just another story? — and the characters in its twenty-five tales could be said to be people who happen to live in England rather than who are English by any absolute definition.
My nation’s Brexit-fuelled identity crisis has now made me think of an earlier book of mine, Last Orders, published in 1996 and set in one small corner of England, though, pertinently, the corner that almost touches continental Europe. In the novel four men travel from Bermondsey, which lies across the Thames from the Tower of London, to Margate, a faded seaside resort on the eastern tip of Kent, there, according to his mysterious wish, to scatter into the waves the ashes of their dead friend Jack.
Their journey, on the face of it, is simple if solemn. A two-hour drive, mainly along a busy motorway, but it proves far from straightforward (or solemn), and though the year’s 1990 and they drive on modern roads, their route, if they’re only dimly aware of it, follows — with several unplanned diversions — a very ancient one: the route from London Bridge, via Rochester and Canterbury, to Dover. Ancient and holy. When in the late sixth century, St Augustine established Canterbury as the centre of English Christianity, part of the route became a regular pilgrimage, its popularity among the devout or merely footloose increased when in 1170 Archbishop Thomas à Becket was martyred in the cathedral and his canonized bones subsequently enshrined there.
In writing Last Orders it was impossible not to feel the shadow of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — from the general itinerary alone, even if I’d not made my characters, in one of their wilder detours, visit Canterbury Cathedral itself. But Canterbury, even before it became the navel of the English Church, was only a staging-place on another sacred way, the much-travelled, umbilical route between England and — the world. ‘The Dover Road’ has a resonant ring to a British ear. It suggests a road somehow much longer — more peopled, more storied — than it actually is. It hints too of adventure and danger, even though it crosses one of the tamest counties in the land — Kent, a region of orchards and hop fields, known as the Garden of England, thus evoking some inviolable national idyll. Danger, when formerly travelling the road, was always there. Blackheath, just outside London, was a haunt of highwaymen. Shakespeare, in Henry IV Part One, sets at Gad’s Hill near Rochester, the famous scene in which Falstaff and his accomplices commit roadside robbery, only to be robbed themselves by a disguised future king. And beyond the dangers of the road lay the perils of sea-crossings and the terrae incognitae beyond.
In my earlier novel, Waterland, there’s a chapter about an English river, the Ouse, which flows through East Anglia into the North Sea, but could be said to have flowed, prehistorically, into the Rhine. The chapter makes the familiar point that Britain is simply a detached lump of Europe and once there was no English Channel or North Sea. Look at the map, half shut your eyes, indulge in some picture-book naivety and Britain indeed resembles an escaping infant, recently released from the womb of its motherland, limbs groping, umbilical snipped off — only just — at the Strait of Dover. The image embodies a geological truth, but also feeds a national prejudice.
A common view of my country, much resurrected in the present Brexit agony, is that it always espoused a robust insularity and only recently, and only against its better judgement, was persuaded to integrate itself into the continental mass. Yet for most of its history Britain has been, and felt itself to be, much more part of Europe than this latter-day rhetoric suggests. The myth of stubborn, back-turning separation is a comparatively new thing.
Even the word ‘Europe’ is something of a novelty. Before the twentieth century English literature and political discourse doesn’t greatly employ it, let alone elevate it into a contentious concept, and this relative lack of ‘Eurospeak’ may have stemmed less from disdainful isolation than from a relaxed acceptance of our continental ties.
The Romans began it when they (twice) invaded Britain. The Dover Road, regarded as a road leading out of London, was first laid down in the opposite direction by Julius Caesar’s, then Claudius’s legions. Dover, Canterbury, Rochester, London are all Roman towns. The Roman occupation linked us not only with Rome but, more indelibly, with classical Mediterranean culture. The Latin language stuck, if the art of building straight roads didn’t. But Latin is just one of the English language’s roots. There were the later implants of Saxon, Norse and French. No other European language embraces such a wide European synthesis. The very words the English speak are a fusion of North and South.
Not long after the Romans left, Augustine’s mission to Canterbury ensured Britain kept another link with Rome (and Latin) and that she’d enter a community of nations more binding than any mere continental coherence: Christendom. Even when Henry VIII’s marital difficulties and the ensuing Reformation theoretically marooned England and split Europe in two, there was little interruption to our cross-Channel involvements. As a legacy of the Norman Conquest, English and French territory had already been enmeshed in the long struggle for sovereignty known as The Hundred Years’ War. It wasn’t till 1558, when Mary Tudor died — famously having declared that Calais might be found lying in her heart — that the English were finally evicted from continental soil. During this whole period the Channel, though much more difficult to cross than now, was hardly viewed as either a barrier or an arbiter. It was only in the reign of Mary’s successor, Elizabeth I, in the time of the Armada and the wars with Spain, that it began to be regarded, in Shakespeare’s phrase, as the ‘moat defensive to a house’.
Nor did the Channel and warfare stop cultural trade. Chaucer flourished at the height of the Hundred Years’ War. Though best known for his earthy English characters in The Canterbury Tales, he was a poet of great sophistication and learning, turning naturally to French and Italian models. And one of the most thrilling aspects of the European flowering known as the Renaissance was the sheer vigour of its transmission. Largely dependent on the journeying of scholars and artists, by roads and sea-passages which by today’s standards were highly hazardous, it represents a triumph of mind over geographical matter. Chaucer went to Florence. Erasmus came to Cambridge. Dürer travelled to Venice and later Antwerp — where he met Erasmus. Dutch masters journeyed to Rome. Wherever an artist or writer practised, a continental arena was assumed. Even allowing for his great cycle of English history dramas, only a minority of Shakespeare’s plays are placed exclusively in England (though his greatest tragedy, King Lear, ends at Dover). They’re set, if not in classical Greece or Rome, then in Italy, Sicily, France, Spain, Austria, Bohemia, Illyria (ie. Croatia) and Denmark.
The various wars of the English — with the Spanish, the Dutch and, again, the French, not to mention a civil war — scarcely restricted this turning to the continent for inspiration. Milton too travelled to Italy. Hobbes met Galileo in Florence and Descartes in Paris. During the eighteenth century it became a recognised part of the education of a gentleman to complete the ‘Grand Tour’ to Mediterranean lands. Wordsworth wandered through France and Switzerland and if the Napoleonic wars disabused him of his revolutionary sympathies, the same wars didn’t deter a later exodus of English Romantic poets. Ruskin sketched the Matterhorn and studied the stones of Venice. George Eliot, the great novelist of provincial England, visited Weimar and Berlin.
And, of course, this traffic wasn’t all in one direction. It would be a fascinating and humbling task to compile a complete list of the luminaries and shapers of Europe who made their way up the Dover Road. But up it, in their time, came St Anselm, Rubens, Voltaire, Rousseau, Mozart, Marx.
My travellers in Last Orders are hardly aware of any of this. Largely uneducated, except by life, they’ve lived and worked most of their lives in Bermondsey at one end of the Dover Road, little concerned by what might lie beyond its other end. Their one exceptional and vivid experience of anything foreign was the Second World War. True, with their cargo of mortality, they’re engaged in a universal journey that transcends specific geography or politics, but my novel, when I look back, offers a curious paradox. While it’s set in the part of Britain closest to mainland Europe, its time-span, since several of its characters are almost seventy, fits the period history when Britain’s mental severance from Europe was perhaps most — and most untypically — pronounced. It’s now sobering to observe, after the passing of three decades in which there’s been much greater cultural fluidity and adhesion to Europe, a return — if Brexit is any guide — to the mood of generations now gone.
Britain’s high era of empire and global influence encouraged and bequeathed not only national arrogance but a sort of mental leap-frogging of Europe, one result of which was the dilatoriness of British policy towards Europe in the 1930s. As the Empire declined, two world wars massively altered Britain’s sense of what lay across the water. Over the centuries she’d had many European conflicts, but, if these weren’t decided at sea, they were settled by despatching relatively small expeditionary forces, leaving the home country intact. The First World War, during which the sound of guns in Flanders could be heard in Kent, was the first time a British population was forced to understand that a whole generation was being ghosted away to a European grave. In the Second World War, not only did war fall from the sky on Britain itself, but Europe became for several years alien and impenetrable, its eventual bloody liberation and the revelations that came with it only cementing the previous generation’s sense of a region of evil memory where bad things happen.
Times change, sometimes very quickly. During the 1939-45 war, my father, a naval pilot, only ever set foot on Europe’s extremities — Gibraltar, Malta, Murmansk — or saw, from the air, its embattled fringes: the fjords of Norway, the beaches of southern Italy. Little more than twenty years later he was taking package-tours to this same once-benighted territory. Europe was a place for holidays.
A new generation — mine — came along who wanted to see Europe as accessible, available, as a zone of opportunity and
beneficial exchange, and certainly as a legitimate framework for collective endeavour. But even this generation, in what felt like its new-found European confidence, perhaps lost sight of the fact that for centuries, and only interrupted by a dark age of imperialism and war, Britain and the continent had shared a natural cultural reciprocity and communion, a mutual exchange of enlightenment.
It’s too early to say whether a new dark age has been inaugurated by the Brexit referendum. In the early 1990s Margate was simply what it sadly then was: a forlorn and tawdry, once popular seaside town. It’s acquired since a still sorrier reputation as a place where immigrants and asylum-seekers have been miserably interned —holiday boarding-houses turned into what’s euphemistically known as ‘bed and breakfast accommodation’.
Two years before Last Orders was published the Channel Tunnel was opened — an umbilical cord restored, an endorsement of a palpable truth if ever there was. Eurostar began to take the British to Paris or Brussels in mere hours, but it and the Tunnel have since become a focus for Europe’s migratory woes, a bottleneck for its tensions. And even as Eurostar whisks us so modernly towards the continent through the quickly passing landscape of Kent, we’ve lost, perhaps for ever, the sense that we’re in, as surely as in any Alpine pass, one of Europe’s ancient cultural funnels. We no longer feel the arterial throb of the Old Dover Road.