I would qualify the last few days in London as a culturally enriching, electro shock visit back to the land of my birth. I really was a stranger in a strange land. All contemporary cultural changes accentuated by my ex-pat status. It takes roughly a day to travel from the relative peace and quiet of my French comfort zone to the Twilight zone that London is fast becoming. The place is not real. I can remember living there, but on every trip it feels more and more as if I had never lived there at all. I’d call it a Bladerunner or Star Wars comparison – traveling to the other end of the universe and setting foot in some sprawling, high rise science fiction city where alien races mingle in an asphyxiating cacophony.
As a mere tourist it would be easier – wide eyed and dumbstruck at the variety, splendor, and decay of the place – but I knew the place before, and whereas the tourist might “take it all in” I find it harder to take anything in. “Gobsmacked” or simply slapped, awoken from my ex-pat torpor by a giant London smack around the face. I suppose it is the same for all ex-pats, appalled and enthralled by the visible (and invisible) changes. So fast and far-reaching are the explicit and implicit transformations that you say “I could never live here again.”
“Never say never” goes one cliché, but then there is the full circle idea of heading back to one’s roots or quite simply ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I might go back “home” one day, but (still in the cliché mode) “Home is where the heart is” and my heart is in France. Perhaps I should look to Rupert Brooke for some comfort – “There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
Every trip to “blighty” has its own nostalgia moment. I think of Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Well, since the Clean Air acts of the 1950’s, London is certainly smokeless, and as I stood on Westminster Bridge (not in the early morning admittedly), I have to admit that London’s new glistening glass vista is very pleasing. Wordsworth mornings give way to Waterloo sunsets, and I supose that the lyrics to this immortal Kinks song better define my kind of London.
Dirty old river, must you keep rolling
Flowing into the night
People so busy, makes me feel dizzy
Taxi light shines so bright
But I don’t need no friends
As long as I gaze on waterloo sunset
I am in paradise.
The road to paradise starts on the decks of a Channel ferry, so here are a few «White Cliff thoughts.»
There’ll be bluebirds over,/ The White Cliifs of Dover /Tomorrow, Just you wait and see.
The immortal lines sung by World War Two British songstress, Vera Lyne. Known as «The forces sweetheart», Ms Lynn recorded this idyllic song in October 1941. Though the Battle of Britain had finished, the worst of the London Blitz was over and any serious threat of a German invasion of Britain had faded, the British still stood «alone». The song was a good «propaganda» boost in the still dark years of the War.
For all ferry travellers to and from the UK, the White cliffs are the first (and last) sight of the British Isles. For many British people, they have symbollic value – facing towards continental Europe at the narrowest part of the English Channel, they form a «bastion» against invasion from the contient
I wouldn’t say that my heart misses a beat when I see the White Cliffs, neither do I get over-emotional. I am merely out on deck for a quick cigarette, before heading down to the car deck, getting into my car, and spending the next two or three hours bumping along a pot-holed motorway, before turning off into the madness of the intermianble, stop, start London rush hour traffic.
The White Cliffs are just one of those clichés that we have made up to symbolise the «best» of England. On a personal level, they are not an essential part of any homecoming. I very much share the thoughts of English writer, politician and philospher; J.B Priestley. In the 1930’s he wrote
«I am not impressed by the raptures of homecoming travellers, when they single out the white cliffs, the comfortable slpoes of the Downs, the dazzling scribble of buttercups and daises outside the train windows; for when I have been some time away from England, hen even what I usually dislike can bring a flash of delight. I welcome with joy the glum railway sidings, the platforms that exist in a perpetual November, the Daily Piffler and the Weekly Blatherer on the bookstalls, the mournful muck of the refreshment room, the grimrack bungalows, the little towns that have never once been gay and gaudy, the hoardings given up to second rate musical comedies, the vast gloom and decay of London. What a civilisation! What a mess! What a country! But I’m home.»
In contemporary terms, for the Daily Piffler, look no further than the Daily Mail. «The mournful muck at the refreshment room» is now the Costa Coffee or Starbucks outlet, where you might stop on the M2 or the M25 – dry oh so dry «home made muffins» washed down with lashings of «ersatz» coffee, sold in an enormous paper cup carrying the warning that the «contents are hot» – Who is going to buy cold coffee? Do not worry though, if you’re coffee is so hot that you can’t even pick the cup up from the counter, there are those natty litlle cardboard «bands» that ou can slip around your coffee cup so you don’t burn the flesh off your hands as you carry your coffee to the rather drab and dirty communal seating area.
«… the grimrack bungalows, the little towns that have never once been gay and gaudy …»
Those miserable miserable places – Folkstone, Ashford, Chatham, sad and drab with no real raison d’être. There is a whole part of Kent from the leafy edge of south east London to the sea that I have always considered a wastelend.