Nature herself set the tone for today perfectly. When I rose early to be at the South Foreland Lighthouse at 7:20 for a Radio Four interview, the cliffs themselves were hardly to be seen, obscured by a succession of thick rolling clouds of fog. Their invisibility turned out to be remarkably apt, for in what followed the real cliffs were never really called into action at all. Today, they existed almost entirely in representations and as symbols.
The fog had also hidden the lighthouse, which is one reason why I was still frantically trying to find it at a quarter past. I finally pulled up on the gravel at 7:18, only to find my contact was not there: unable to find it herself, she had set up camp at the White Cliffs visitor centre instead.
If you think about it, this is all somewhat bizarre. I was going to a place that could not be seen in order to talk about it through a medium that is entirely audio. Did I need to be anywhere near the cliffs at all? Couldn’t I have been talking about them from California, where Nat Burton penned the famous Vera Lynn song about them?
After a while, it also crossed my mind that not only were the cliffs redundant, but so was my job. If the main purpose of this residency is to raise awareness of the importance of the cliffs and get people thinking about what they meant, then the flurry of interviews and articles that came out today (many listed below) probably did the trick more effectively than my final essay will. I have done my job before really even starting work on it.
I know all this risks ending up in a post-modern abyss. It’s tempting to conclude that representations matter more than reality, that signifiers have become more important that what they signify. Ernst Cassirer was certainly on to something when he wrote that a human is the “’representational animal’, homo symbolicum, the creature whose distinctive character is the creation and manipulation of signs – things that stand for or take the place of something else.” But I think people both overstate and misses the real point of this when they conclude reality itself has been made redundant.
In the build up to my week-long writer’s residency at the White Cliffs, I and others have been talking about the cliffs as a kind of symbol of nationhood. And this first day has certainly underlined how it is possible for symbols to do their work independently of the realities from where they spring. But it also seems obvious to me that certain symbols only have their power because they are rooted in concrete reality.
This is, I think, what made sense of the strange idea of doing radio on location. It may seem illogical, but it does make a difference that someone is talking from the site of what they talking about. It would be a scandal if I had pretended to be on the cliffs when really I was in San Francisco. Words are not things and symbols are not objects. But without things and objects, words and symbols are empty.
And of course this is true of the East Kent coast. Without a real White Cliffs, there can be no symbolic White Cliffs. In order to stand for something, they must first stand. And if we care about what they stand for, we should also care for them.
Highlights of media coverage of project launch
“White cliffs of Dover get writer in residence.” BBC News
“There’ll be blue-sky thinking over the white cliffs of Dover.” The Guardian
“Why there’ll be a few words over the White Cliffs of Dover…” The Independent
“White Cliffs of Dover get writer-in-residence.” Daily Telegraph
Interview on Radio Four’s Today programme (at 08:42, so around 2h40m in)
NB: Some of these reports state I was born in Folkestone. Raised there, yes, but I was born in Buckland Hospital, Dover.