Yesterday, I walked from St Margaret’s Bay to Deal, bringing my week-long writer’s residency to a close by going to the literal end of the White Cliffs. It’s been an extremely interesting and rewarding week, unlike any project I’ve done before.
The work of trying to understand the “meaning” and “significance” of a place like this could be undertaken as a kind of informal opinion poll. Talking to people, it soon became clear that the vast majority saw the cliffs as standing for home and/or Britain (sometimes England). A large minority associated them mainly with wartime, particularly Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. And for a few, they were very beautiful but they had no meaning at all.
None of this is very surprising and it does not require a writer-in-residence to find this out. But there are, I hope, reasons to bring in a philosophically-trained writer to take the meanings we already see in things and push them further. The cliffs mean “home”, for example, but what does “home” mean and why is a chalk coastline a good symbol for it? In asking questions like this, the purpose is not necessarily to get inside the minds of the public and speculate about what is going on. This would be pointless, not only because every individual is different and so will have different deep associations, but also because there is no way of knowing whether the resulting answers will be inventions or discoveries.
The point of pushing the symbolism further is rather that symbols are not simply there, given. Symbols are things we create, sometimes from scratch but more often from moulding something that is already there. So if the cliffs mean home and country, there is an opportunity to take that as a starting point and invite people to see them in particular ways, and so to think of home and country in richer ways.
This is worth doing because most of the time what we call “thinking” is really little more than mentally working with rough and ready pre-made filters and frameworks. The images and symbols we associate with places and things provide mental short cuts for when we have to make decisions relating to them. Ask someone about immigration, for example, and their answer will not usually be the result of a careful process of deliberation but will spring from what that word evokes, which might be sympathy-inducing images of people enduring hardship to get here, scary imaginings of criminal gangs, or much-loved local shops run by earlier immigrants. Which one is associated with immigration affects what people do and even how they vote.
But it is also important to understand the value and meaning of special places for more conscious deliberation. Right now, there are plans to sell off Dover Harbour, and with it part of the cliffs, with a decision due next month (September 2012). Ownership will pass from a trust, Dover Harbour Board, which as existed since 1606, to a private company, perhaps overseas. Many are concerned about this, but why does it matter? I think that understanding the meaning and significance of the cliffs, and other public, historic spaces like them, will give us a much better answer to this than distrust of private profit or foreigners.
So I’m off now to think and then write about all this. Thanks to everyone who has helped me this last week, in particular staff and volunteers at the National Trust and people who have contacted me and talked to me. Watch this space for the end results.