Monday, 27 July 2009

England my England

England is a much-invaded country. It’s not hard to understand why: from a distance, this green and pleasant land must look attractive to potential occupiers. The problem, as a Spanish visitor recently pointed out, is that once here you soon discover that the greenness comes at a price.

Rain. Again and again. On and on. At any time of year.

Just as exasperating is the wind that blows in the gaps in the rain. It seems to follow you round corners, seek you out behind any kind of shelter, and whistle in under doors or round windows.

So what I ask myself as I sit in traffic jams watching the rain drops bouncing off my windscreen – in July, for pity’s sake – is ‘why did the invaders stay?’

Some of them cheated. At one time, I used to feel sorry for the poor Romans standing guard on Hadrian’s Wall in the bitter nights, when they could have been in Rome, the Tuscan hills or the Bay of Naples. Then I found out that for the most part they didn’t do it themselves, but sent German auxiliaries instead. A good plan, with a double benefit: for the auxiliaries it must have seemed like a home from home, and for the Romans keeping the Germans in Britain stopped them clogging up the beaches in Italy.

But take the Vikings. I can understand why they came. After all, their countries might have spectacular fjords and wonderful snowfields, but it’s winter for nine months of the year and pretty much night-time for six of them. Nothing more natural than to want to get away.

As I learned the story, the first incident in the Viking invasions was the killing of an English customs officer. I’ve often tried to imagine the scene. For some reason, I picture the customs man with a leather satchel over a shoulder, arriving at the beach on a mule. There he’s confronted by a Viking long boat, adorned with a slavering dragon’s head and bristling with spears. He approaches a group of brawny, heavily armed blond men, and says:

‘Welcome to England, gentlemen. On behalf of the Kingdom of Northumbria Tourist Board, let me wish you a pleasant and profitable stay in our country. Now, may I enquire whether the purpose of your journey is business or pleasure?’

‘Pillage, slaughter and rape,’ they reply as they slice him into little pieces. ‘So a bit of both.’

Up to that point, it all seems reasonably understandable. But what happened next? That evening, in the village pub, they ask the drinkers before putting them to the sword, ‘is the ghastly drizzle ever going to stop?’

‘Tomorrow starts fine, but with a risk of scattered showers in the afternoon,’ they reply with their dying breaths.

But the forecast turns out to have been over-optimistic, and the next day they get the usual downpours alternating with drizzle with intervals of wind in between. This probably goes on for day after day, hope springing up each evening to be dashed in the morning, just like in our own times.

So I can’t see why they didn’t, at some stage, say, ‘hey, France is next door, where they have summers when it actually gets hot, and good wines and decent cooking. Let’s get out of this dismal place, and head there.’

But they didn’t. Like so many other waves of invaders, they stayed and blended their specific contributions into our culture. Amazing, isn’t it?

Of course, I can’t really criticise. After all, I actually got away, and lived in France and Germany for fifteen years. And came back. To enjoy the weather and the traffic.

The traffic! The problem with England is that it’s the wrong size. It’s just small enough to get around by car, just too big for that to be easy. Like France, it has a capital-centric railway system. So to get from where I live in Stafford to Brighton, which I did last Thursday, I’d have had to take a train to London, struggle across town and then take another train to the coast. The inconvenience and the time involved are just enough to tip the balance in favour of using the car. So I drove the 215 miles.

Railway systems don’t have to be that inconvenient. In Germany, you can get across the country without going through the capital. Berlin is way off to the East and was, in any case, for a long time surrounded by hostile East German territory; at that time the capital of the Federal Republic was Bonn, altogether far too insignificant a town to be the hub of the railway system. So Germany has developed a genuine train network: you can get from anywhere to anywhere by changing between Inter City Express trains that criss-cross the entire country. Each change involves a five or ten minute wait for a train coming in to the same platform or the one opposite. A fantastic system.

Unfortunately, lots of people in England apply the same reasoning as I do and take the car instead of the train. As a result, your journey takes forever and demands constant concentration as you weave around the other vehicles, particularly if it’s raining. Which it’s practically bound to be. So you arrive shattered, and turn up in your hotel room wet, having left your car a couple of streets away because among its many delights Brighton does not include a friendly, accessible or even reasonably charged parking system.

But for all that misery, English life somehow continues to charm many of us. Invaders or returnees, something holds us here. Perhaps it’s the sense of humour, honed down the ages to cope with the conditions. Certainly, I enjoy the constant touches of irony. For instance, shaving in my Brighton hotel, I was struck by the notice glued to the bathroom mirror: ‘South East England is the driest part of the United Kingdom. Don’t waste water’. I walked out of the bathroom and looked out of the window at the spectacular vista across the seafront to the beach and the English Channel.

Through torrents of rain sleeting down from a slate-grey sky.

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