Lost in the fog

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.



One thought on “Lost in the fog

  1. Dear Julian Baggini
    Having read about your adventure as writer-in-residence at The White Cliffs of Dover for The National Trust I am sending you some information of which you may not be aware concerning this site.
    I grew up in Folkestone, leaving home in 1959 at the age of 18. My father Reg Briggs was a man fascinated by both local history and sailing. He knew the waters around Folkestone and Dover like the back of his hand. Among the adventures we went on was a trip to the cliffs in what is known as The Warren between Folkestone and Dover where the original workings for the Victorian attempt to create a Channel Tunnel can still be seen. They were still watertight in the Fifties. The site is above the seashore on the walkway between the two ports and slightly nearer Dover than Folkestone.
    Also the White Cliffs were a familiar sight to the Romans since there are the remains of a large villa on the East Cliff at Folkestone which looks out to sea towards Dover. An ideal spot for seeing enemy and friendly ships arriving. This was covered in by the town council in the 60s or 70s but there has been renewed interest in recent years.
    My father also reckoned that Julius Caesar did not land further round the coast based on his researches including reading the description of the weather on the crossing and landing in Caesar’s Gallic Wars and my father’s own knowledge of the local tides and weather trends.
    I hope this is of interest to you in your work.
    I also wondered why you had apparently been born in the Royal Victoria Hospital rather than the Buckland. Whereabouts in Folkestone did you grow up?
    Mary Redman nee Briggs
    201 Lodge Road
    CM1 3JB
    Telephone 01245 421544

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