We have been away for the weekend – W and I and Ruby the red camper van. We stayed on a Caravan Club site near Hythe in Kent, very close to the sea – a sea which was turbulent, wild and raucous, brown with silt dredged up from the bottom, and driven by some very strong winds off the Channel. We stood on the beach – difficult at times against a wind which threatened to knock you over – and watched mesmerized by the frightening power of these huge breakers smashing into the land and throwing up spume and spray which the wind then took and flung along the beach and up onto the promenade. Yet there was something wonderful, even tempting, about being that close to the wildness of nature.
That part of the South English coast is fascinating. There is a huge shingle headland known as Dungeness which projects out into the English Channel. It’s one of the largest areas of shingle in the world and home to some of the rarest birds, insects, spiders, plants etc. in the UK. It is also home to one of the largest nature reserves in the UK, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is dead flat, dotted with ponds and small lakes, often with extensive reedbeds. The wind on Saturday, howled unchecked across it. There is one lighthouse, a semi-defunct nuclear power station, a bleak line of electricity pylons and a few sporadic houses. There are two pubs. The area’s most famous inhabitant was, I suppose, the film director, the late Derek Jarman.
All that is in stark contrast to the countryside inland from there. Inland is what I suppose passes for ‘typically English countryside’ – i.e.. very green, lots of trees, small fields, hedges, hills, narrow winding lanes, inviting-looking pubs and picturesque villages with flowers in front gardens, pots and hanging baskets. It is, especially with the sun on it, very attractive in a gentle and very English way.
There is however a sour note. Union flags. They are appearing in ever increasing numbers in that area. In front gardens, in upstairs windows, on rooftops. Why? What is the point, the attraction of putting a Union flag – a flag of any sort – on your property? A signal to all passers-by that you are British/English? Why would you want them to know that anyway? Are they likely to care? Why do you care? Is it that in ‘Englishness/Britishness’ – whatever they may be – you find a part of your own identity? Do you lack perhaps a little in self belief that you are happy to be subsumed in some such indefinable concept? This land now called England or Great Britain has been called other things by other peoples in the past. And will no doubt be called other things by others in the future. There is no permanence in ‘Englishness’ or ‘Britishness’.
And there is more than a certain ugliness about it. That you are British (or Irish, or French or Congolese for that matter) excludes all those who are not. There are a lot of people from the near continent driving their cars on holiday through that area – being so close as it is to the cross-channel ports of Dover and Folkestone. Is that one of the reasons for this rash of rural xenophobia? You wish such people to know that you are different – even a little indefinably better – than them? That you are British and probably proud of it? (Though how one can be proud of something to which one contributed absolutely nothing, I’m not sure). What an unpleasant message it all sends out. There were even two pubs in the car-parks of which there was a big flag-pole with a Union flag fluttering from it. What’s that about – that they serve only the British? Do they check passports at the door?
I am confused. Where is the place in today’s village world for such triviality and such inward-looking? Have we not yet learned that there is only one way forward for this troubled world – and that is to get together, sink our differences and each treat the other as that which we all are – i.e. equal? We have here a diverse and often very beautiful country. Let’s not defile it with these divisive coloured rags. If you really are set on putting flags on your property, put a dozen or so – from assorted countries of assorted faiths around the world. Or the skull and crossbones.